The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ) is proposing to re-issue a Clean Water Act permit that governs where and how suction dredge mining can occur in Idaho. 

Suction dredge mining is a form of recreational gold mining that can wreak havoc on fish, wildlife habitat, riverbanks, waterways, and riverbeds. A motor-powered vacuum sucks up gravel and sediment at the bottom of a stream, dumps the material into a sluice box to capture gold, if any, and then spews the gravel and sediment back into the water. Because of its potential to harm streams and water quality, rules have been developed to control suction dredge mining, and not all rivers and streams are open to it.

The Idaho Conservation League, Tribes, fisheries experts, and others have been concerned with recreational suction dredging for decades, often focusing on specific rivers in Idaho where we’ve documented violations, such as the South Fork Clearwater, Salmon, and South Fork Payette Rivers.

The proposed IDEQ General Permit establishes the baseline criteria applicable throughout the state and governs which rivers are open or closed to dredging. Any person wanting to suction dredge in Idaho would need to apply for and receive this permit from the IDEQ. The draft is currently open for comment until April 27, 2024.

The permit will limit where, how, and when dredges can operate. These limits are based on experience and data that have identified effects to fish habitat, endangered species, clean water, and public health. These limits are vital to protect the quality of our rivers and the aquatic life that rely on Idaho’s pristine streams. The good news is that this new permit would maintain many protections that restrict dredging in endangered species habitat, streams where water quality is already poor, and in rivers designated as Wild & Scenic.

The permit needs more work

Part of the permitting process requires IDEQ to conduct what is called an antidegradation analysis. This analysis requires IDEQ to consider water bodies on an individual basis and ensure that healthy streams are not harmed by any proposed activity. In addition, IDEQ must ensure that any other source of pollution within the same watershed does not cumulatively impair the existing beneficial uses of the stream, like swimming, fishing, or drinking. This degree of oversight and analysis takes a lot of work and requires a high level of site-specific knowledge.

While Idaho rules on General Permits give IDEQ broad discretion to decide that certain activities are insignificant and exempt from antidegradation analysis, a rationale must be provided. In this case, IDEQ has decided suction dredging is exempt, but fails to explain why.

IDEQ is also proposing to allow more suction dredges than are allowed by other state limits. For example, the draft permit Fact Sheet for McCoy Creek, a tributary to Palisades Reservoir in southeastern Idaho, lists the allowable limit as 15 dredges — while the Idaho Department of Water Resources River Basin Plan allows only five. When it comes to something as important as clean water, these limits need to be consistent. 

Important protections must remain intact

Historically, sensitive water bodies inhabited by endangered or threatened species, like steelhead, Chinook salmon, and bull trout, have been protected from suction dredging. IDEQ has proposed to leave these protections in place. We appreciate that IDEQ is proposing to continue limits on suction dredging in endangered species habitat and other sensitive water bodies. After all, Idaho’s native fish are a far more precious resource than a couple of specks of gold. 

Speak up for clean water

Finally, what’s the point of a permit if there’s no monitoring or enforcement? Since 2020, when IDEQ took on oversight of the prior permit, ICL has documented dozens of violations. Despite widespread abuse in treasured waters like the Salmon, South Fork Payette, and Boise Rivers, only one citation has been issued. Idaho’s waters—and all who rely on them—deserve better. IDEQ must establish clear monitoring and enforcement protocols for this permit to be effective, and to protect the clean water that makes Idaho special.