Gravel Mining

Gravel Mining Recent News


Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Russian Riverkeeper, Redwood Empire Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Syar Industries, announced today that they have settled the lawsuit over Syar’s proposed gravel mining project in the Alexander Valley Reach of the Russian River. The lawsuit had challenged the environmental impact report for the mining project, which was approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in December 2010. The settlement allows the project to move forward, with reduced mining during the first three years, and a clear definition of the adaptive management strategy that the County approved for the project. “We are pleased that we were able to resolve concerns rather than spend more time litigating,” said John Perry, representative of Syar Industries. “This helps us move forward with the next steps for the project, including a complex federal permitting process.”

“We’re hopeful going forward that with this settlement we’ll be able to protect the Russian River and the native fish and wildlife that rely on it,” said Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeeper. “We will be participating actively in the ongoing adaptive management in order to make sure the process works and the river is protected.” The County Board of Supervisors approved the settlement in closed session on Tuesday, October 2. To implement the settlement, the Board will later consider several revisions to the conditions of approval. The County will also appoint a team of consultants to serve as the County’s new outside scientific review team for the adaptive management process. Once those two steps are completed, the lawsuit will be dismissed.
Click here for article from Press Democrat

What did this lawsuit and settlement get for the Russian River?

  • Reduction in volume for first 3 years from 350,000 tons to 175,000 tons to allow the Adaptive Management Process time to test the brakes (performance criteria) at a lower volumes just like testing car brakes at 10mph rather than 100mph!
  • Allowance for additional 40,000 tons for wetland, oxbow and alcove creation assuming the Science Review Team can develop relevant performance criteria that addresses improvement in salmon habitat.
  • Dozens of improvements to the conditions of approval and adaptive management program to increase protection for the river such as strengthening performance criteria, clarifying weak language and making the adaptive management process more transparent.
  • Express inclusion of Riverkeeper and RETU staff in all annual adaptive management program meetings to review future mining plans, whether performance criteria are met and how to address exceedance of performance criteria and Syar providing funds for RRK/RETU to hire experts to help in the review process.

We appreciate Syar’s willingness to work through the settlement process and resolve our disagreements.

Can We Turn Old Open Pit Gravel Mines Into Productive Fish Habitat? – Feasibility Study Underway to Answer Question
Riverkeeper Settles Lawsuit Challenging Granite Construction’s Kunzler Ranch Open Pit Gravel Mine in Ukiah

June 11, 2012 – In September of 2010 Russian Riverkeeper filed a legal challenge to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors approval of the Granite Construction Kunzler Ranch Open Pit Mine Final EIR. The lawsuit challenged the adequacy of the EIR as it failed to identify, analyze or mitigate numerous project impacts to the Russian River Steelhead Trout and to water quality. On October 11th, 2011 Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Benke heard the case and in January 2011 handed down his ruling denying Riverkeeper’s lawsuit. Riverkeeper attorney Stephen Volker promptly filed an appeal with the district Court of Appeals and shortly after agreed to enter mediation with Granite Construction to resolve the lawsuit. In exchange for releasing Granite from the lawsuit, Granite will provide a small percent of all gravel sales from this project to a fund for river restoration and enhancement projects that Riverkeeper will control. In addition, Granite has pledged to comply with any and all directives from NOAA Fisheries to protect endangered Steelhead and Chinook Salmon that are present near the project site.
We believe our lawsuit has resulted in a far better deal for the Russian River than if this project was unchallenged. The restoration funds will provide one of the largest sources of fish restoration funding for the Upper Russian River.

Gravel Mining and the Russian River

Gravel extraction from the Russian River’s channel, gravel bars and floodplains has occurred since 1900 to supply aggregate needed for asphalt and Portland Cement Concrete for construction locally and in the San Francisco Bay Area. The volume of mining greatly increased by 1940 and into the post WWII years as construction in the Bay Area increased with the population. Gravel mining has played a significant role in the degradation of the Russian River’s water quality and biological habitat as well as damage to infrastructure due to mining lowering the riverbed.

The gravels of the Russian River are highly valuable due to the need for durable hard rock needed for making strong earthquake resistant concrete, key building materials for roads, bridges and buildings. The high cost of transporting gravel made the nearby Russian River a major source of gravel for the growing Bay Area. Gravel from the Russian River has been used to build many of the iconic structures in the Bay Area such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the BART tunnel under the San Francisco Bay and many major buildings. Until 1980 there was almost no regulation of gravel mining that led to highly damaging practices such as digging deep pits right in the middle of the river south of Healdsburg. As recognition grew that unregulated mining was leading to major down-cutting of the River channel, known as incision, the calls for regulation increased as property owners lost land due to bank erosion caused by excessive mining. In some areas the channel bottom dropped up to 25 feet leading to bank erosion, reduction in habitat complexity and incision working up tributaries and creating fish passage problems. The excessive mining also caused the river to be cut off from the floodplains and reducing the amount of streamside or riparian plants and trees that are critical to salmon and other wildlife along the River. The changes in the channel bed also led to scouring of spawning gravels for salmon and greatly reduced the amount of habitat for these economically and culturally important fish. Other impacts included groundwater level changes that have lowered floodplain groundwater levels affecting well owners who had to drill deeper wells to access water.

In the 1980’s calls for regulation led to a reduction in the volume of mining in the river channel and increase in deep open pit mines in the floodplains that were dug by giant drag-line excavators. These open pit mines permanently destroyed prime farmlands, created potential for stranding salmon after flood events and lowered the water table in local areas. By 1990, further calls for regulating gravel extraction led to the founding of Friends of the Russian River in 1993 as a voice against gravel mining and for protecting the river for wildlife and the community. In 1996 after several rounds of litigation the Sonoma County Aggregate Resource Management Plan was approved leading to increased regulation of gravel mining although impacts to fish and wildlife habitat continued. In the Mendocino section of the River gravel mining in the Ukiah Valley has been halted by regulatory agencies due to major incision or down-cutting of the riverbed that has exposed 50,000 year old blue clay soils. This informs us that gravel mining and sediment reductions from Coyote Dam’s trapping sediment have stripped away 50,000 years of gravel deposits in less than 80 years – that is a great definition of unsustainable extraction of gravel.

Over the last 100 years the Russian River has given up more tons of gravel per mile than any river in California; time to give the river a break!

Today the current economic crisis that led to an 85% decrease in building rates for residential and commercial construction has caused a corresponding 70-80% decline in the need for gravel in construction. In addition new sources of gravel are being imported into the county from sustainable sources in British Columbia. Although it might seem less sustainable to import gravel than source it locally moving gravel by ships and barges is actually lower cost and produces less Greenhouse Gas emissions that supplying gravel from the River to major places of use in the county. The gravel import source for Sonoma County is also sustainable coming from a glacial tailing pile and not a river and from a First Nations native tribe who benefits. The glacial tailings were created during the last ice age when glaciers carved out large valleys as they moved and when they melted all the ground up mountains and hills were turned into gravel and sand that is now being mined. At this time this sustainable imported source is coming in at similar or lower cost than locally produced gravel so is reducing the need to continue mining as much volume from the river.

Impacts from past and recent gravel mining

Gravel Mining competes with a healthy sustainable watershed – you can import gravel but you can’t import a healthy fishery or plentiful and clean water supplies for our future!What are the Impacts? In simple terms the largest impact from gravel mining is erosion. When material is removed from a river system it is replaced from increased erosion upstream and downstream. Gravel mining has lead to or increased impacts that damage public trust resources, but we pay for many of these impacts.
Gravel mining has caused and continues to contribute to severe channel incision (deepening) that has eroded bridges, property, and riparian habitat and led to steep to vertical banks that collapse during high flows.




Geyserville Bridge in 1932 had its support piers deeply embedded in riverbed gravel. Well before its New Years 2006 collapse, gravel mining had largely removed over 20 feet of the riverbed that used to support the bridge leading to a $25 million bill to taxpayers.

*  Gravel mining is the major cause of induced incision of tributaries as gravel removed from the mainstem is replaced with increased erosion of tributaries causing wildlife, property and structural impacts.
*  Gravel mining has caused braiding or splitting of the main channel despite the regulations that do not allow gravel mining to upset the rivers form.
*  Gravel mining has contributed to significant reductions in spawning habitat due to increased turbidity and ensuing embededness of gravels in fine materials that prohibits spawning in many mined sections of the River.
*  Gravel mining perpetuates a greatly degraded state of the River causing more bank erosion that is followed by bank armoring that increases channelization of the river and causes loss of riparian habitat.
*  Gravel mining has caused a drop in Middle Reach aquifer levels roughly equivalent to the loss of 450,000 acre feet of water or six and a half times the current SCWA water usage from the river
*  Gravel mining continues to threaten our naturally filtered water supplies by reducing the natural bedload transport and perpetuating a greatly incised river channel.
These graphics show what has occurred in the Middle Reach of the Russian River between Healdsburg and Forestville, over 25 feet of bed level degradation has lead to a major loss of aquifer storage, it has been calculated to be over a hundred thousand acre feet of water.



Another major gravel mining impact we will pay for as taxpayers is dealing with the hundreds of acres of Open Pit gravel mines that are unstable, pollutant filled holes in our future water supplies. Open Pit mines exist in the Middle Reach below Healdsburg and in the Ukiah Valley. Fine sediment filled pits release fine sediment back into river when floods frequently connect Open Pits to the river called “capturing”. Open Pit mines are far deeper than the River and water always finds a low point as will the River some tragic day in the future. All Open Pits have no engineered levees and instead are just left over strips of unmined land…waiting to collapse.

Other damage due to gravel mining:
*  Permanent loss of prime agricultural lands.
*  Permanent loss of tens of thousands of acre feet of aquifer waters.
*  Causing increases of Mercury loading in local fish & bird species.

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