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Gravel Mining in the Gualala River

Update, June, 2009:

Sonoma County has issued a Notice of Determination for gravel extraction from 12 gravel bars in the South Fork and Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River, installation of summer crossings to access the mining sites, processing gravel at a plant adjacent to the river, and maintenance of a diversion sump and the diversion of water from the river to operate the gravel plant.

Permit conditions and mitigations are designed to protect salmonid habitat from environmental harm while allowing gravel mining to continue.

Update, September 2008:
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued its biological opinion – the official determination of impacts and “take” of steelhead and coho salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act – for gravel mining on the Gualala River.

Highlights of the 58 page document are excerpted in National Marine Fisheries Service Findings on Gualala River Gravel Mining.

Many criticisms and recommendations Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR) has issued in past public comments to Sonoma County Permits and Resource Management Department and the Regional Water Quality Control Board, appear to be matched by NMFS findings and opinions.

The NMFS biological opinion resulted in negotiations that modified the gravel mining permit application, and significantly improved environmental protection, monitoring and regulatory agency supervision, and mitigation.

The NMFS biological opinion is not itself a permit, but it contains terms and conditions that are mandatory for the Corps of Engineers permit’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

The NMFS biological opinion closely matches most text and terms of the California Department of Fish and Game’s Streambed Alteration Agreement, one of the principal state permits required for gravel mining.

One of the most significant findings of the authoritative NMFS Biological Opinion was that past Gualala River mining effects “likely occurred such as… destruction of spawning areas… direct mortality of juveniles [listed salmonid species]”; see Impacts of Gravel Mining, in National Marine Fisheries Service Findings on Gualala River Gravel Mining.

Update, late August 2008:
At their hearing on August 26, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors decided to put this project on their consent calendar for September 16. They are rushing to meet the needs of the applicant, but in the process they are not giving adequate attention to habitat protection.

The revised permit is better than it was, but it is still not adequate. Their own staff stated that the proposed permit could be improved with additional time and effort. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers has not yet issued its permit.

The permit question is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The devil is in the details – under what conditions, using what methods, and with what mitigations should gravel mining in the Gualala River be permitted?

Friends of the Gualala River is not opposed to gravel mining as long as it does not cause adverse impacts to steelhead or impair the recovery of riparian habitats, fish and wildlife resources, streamflows and water quality. State and federal agencies know from experience what conditions and mitigations are required to avoid environmental harm. Sonoma County should accept agency recommendations to protect the river and its wildlife.

Update, August 2008:
Several agencies have submitted recommended conditions and mitigations to the proposed Gualala River gravel mining plan, including the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), California Department of Fish and Game and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Sonoma County is moving to approve the project as quickly as possible, scheduling a hearing on August 26, even though, with only a week to go, neither the Water Board’s final recommendations nor the County’s staff report were yet available for public review.

Update, July 2008:
The applicant has re-applied for a Department of the Army permit to seasonally remove up to 40,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel from the South Fork and Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River, between Gualala and Stewarts Point, Sonoma County, California, for 10 years. The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments on the permit application until August 1, 2008. See: Army Corps of Engineers Public Notice, below.

Update, April 2008:
The Army Corps of Engineers has denied (without prejudice) the permit application for gravel mining in the Gualala River on procedural and administrative grounds.

Sonoma County has postponed consideration of a permit while the applicant re-starts the process with the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service.

Update, January 2008:
At the hearing in October, 2007, the proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), which would grant a County permit for gravel mining in the Gualala River, was neither approved nor denied. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors accepted the Planning and Resource Management Department staff recommendation for further deliberation (see “Gravel mining decision delayed”Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 24, 2007).

The applicant subsequently requested a further delay to allow the National Marine Fisheries staff time to complete their Biological Opinion, and allow adequate time for review of their Opinion prior to the Board hearing.

Friends of the Gualala River is not opposed to well-regulated gravel mining in the Gualala River. However, we believe that the current MND is inadequate, and that the County must prepare a rigorous Environmental Impact Report, with state-of-the-science mitigation and monitoring, to regulate gravel mining to protect the river and its recovery.


Gravel mining: summary

Gravel mining in the Wheatfield and South Forks of the Gualala River proceeded in 2005 and 2006 without County or federal Corps of Engineers permits during a “grace period” offered by Sonoma County.

During this unauthorized “grace period,” riparian forest and scrub were cleared along the haul road of the Wheatfield Fork, and gravel bars were mined out without significant natural gravel recharge. The mined bar at Valley Crossing degraded so much that the main channel breached the lowered head and top of the bar in late 2006. The river here abandoned its former stable, shaded channel position along riparian forest that supported steelhead until 2006. It is now a dry, shallow sun-baked bed in the middle of the remaining flats of the former bar.

Henry Alden of Gualala Redwoods, Inc., the landowner of mined river reaches, is proposing to “revise” mining standards for the Gualala after two years of unauthorized mining and impacts that are now treated as part of the CEQA “baseline” conditions.

The Gualala River is experiencing rapid regeneration of riparian woodland along its banks and bars except near mined reaches. Riparian woodland is stabilizing and trapping gravel, allowing channels to cut deeper into gravel alluvium and express surface flows all summer.

Stream and riparian habitats of the Gualala River support biologically significant populations of federally listed steelhead, the endemic Gualala roach (a minnow subspecies unique to the watershed), western pond turtles, foothill yellow-legged frogs, California and red-bellied newts, green herons, wood ducks, red-breasted mergansers, and many other wildlife species.

The County has to date been delinquent in its obligations to comply with CEQA and require permits for all gravel mining and associated activities, including coordination with state and federal permit agencies. The Gualala is the only river on the north coast with a recent history of unpermitted gravel mining and impacts.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service), and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board must issue permits in coordination with Sonoma County before gravel mining may legally resume.


October, 2007
Aerial Photo Tour of the Gualala River
Over 1,100 aerial photos, with
photo documentation of gravel mining impacts.
Valley Crossing gravel plant, Gualala River watershed, October 2007

National Marine Fisheries Service

Army Corps of Engineers

  • Gualala River Gravel Mining 48 KB pdf
    Public Notice – July, 2008
  • Gualala River Gravel Mining 2.9 MB pdf
    Maps of gravel bars – July, 2008

Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration


Public comments

Additional information