Legacy Mine Impacts in the Yuba River Watershed

The San Juan Ridge Mine

What Happened

In 1995, the San Juan Ridge Mine Corporation (SJRMC) ceased operations following the breach of an aquifer that caused an overflow of containment ponds and released millions of gallons of mine waste discharge into Spring and Shady Creeks, tributaries of the State Wild and Scenic South Yuba River, which flows to the Sacramento River and all the way to the Bay-Delta. The breach also drained and contaminated 12 wells through the oxidation of heavy metals that occur naturally in the environment, including a well that supplied drinking water to the local K-8 school.

The Proposal (Threat)

With the price of gold reaching all-time highs in recent years, in 2012 the SJRMC proposed to re-open for underground gold mining. The proposal contained plans to pump up to 3.5 million gallons of water out of the ground daily – nearly one-third of the total daily groundwater use in all of Nevada County. The pumping would not only have impacted the underground aquifer which provides water to hundreds of families, businesses, and family-owned farms, it would also have the potential to cause serious negative impacts to surface water quality in Spring and Shady Creeks, tributaries of the South Yuba River, a river that is already impaired for temperature and mercury issues and is on the Clean Water Act’s 303(d) list.

The River 

The South Yuba River is a key part of Nevada County’s rural tourist economy and is one of its most visited attractions. The river is located within a three-hour-drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Sacramento. Approximately eight million people live within a four-hour drive. In 2014, an estimated 750,000 visitors recreated on the sandy beaches, trails, and crystal clear pools of the South Yuba River State Park. The 39 miles of the South Yuba are much-loved by both residents and out-of-towners alike.

Staff meeting at Hoyt's crossing 2013
River-goers enjoying Hoyt’s Crossing

Nearly one-third of the total daily groundwater use in all of Nevada County is required to run the mine on a daily basis and the potential discharge from the San Juan Mine would threaten the water quality of the river as well as the economic driver of Nevada County’s rural economy.

In addition, a 24-mile stretch of the Lower Yuba River provides spawning and rearing habitat for one of the largest self-sustaining populations of fall-run Chinook salmon in the Central Valley, as well as small populations of Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead, which are federally listed as in jeopardy of extinction. In 2014, almost 12,000 spring and fall run Chinook salmon were counted in the Lower Yuba. Untreated water from the mine would put further pressure on these threatened fish, degrade their aquatic habitat, reduce the viability of eggs laid in Yuba River gravels, and result in the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in salmon, steelhead and other species in the Yuba.

Local frog expert Tom Van Wagner holding a Foothill Yellow-legged frog.
Local frog expert Tom Van Wagner holding a Foothill Yellow-legged frog, taking a snout-vent length measurement and demonstrating the correct way to restrain a frog for examination.

The Community Responds

The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), has actively engaged the community since 2012 to fight the proposal and to collect data ensuring that surface water in the Yuba watershed is not contaminated by millions of gallons of untreated mine discharge. Our goals included:

  • engaging and commenting in the review and permitting process;
  • collecting data to assess surface water quality from the creeks that drain the mine;
  • if the mine was permitted, that effective water quality controls would be put in place;
  • and if the mine was not permitted, identifying alternative land uses and support mine reclamation efforts.

To address a growing concern about water quality impacts for the potential reopening of the SJRMC, Spring and Shady Creek, tributaries of the South Yuba River, were hydrologically monitored from 2013-2016. Collecting hydrologic data is critical to certain types of water quality monitoring and assessment to create a relationship between water quality sampling results and variable flow rates. On Spring and Shady Creeks, turbidity and mercury sampling results need to be tied to hydrologic flow to estimate the amount of sediment and mercury being transported for a given flow.

Sarah Yarnell investigating a juvenile frog with AmeriCorps River Monitoring Coordinator Marianne Pott.
Sarah Yarnell studied the impacts of mining in the area from 1997-2003. Here she investigates a juvenile frog with AmeriCorps River Monitoring Coordinator Marianne Pott.
Foothill Yellow-legged Frog – A frog that has been disappearing from much of its range in California. Extremely high water levels from reservoir releases wash away egg masses, tadpoles, and forces adult frogs away from streams leaving them vulnerable to predators. The same effect happens in gold mining when discharging large volumes of water during the mining process.
Foothill Yellow-legged Frog has been disappearing from much of its range in California. Extremely high water levels from reservoir releases wash away egg masses and tadpoles, and forces adult frogs away from streams leaving them vulnerable to predators. The same effect happens in gold mining when discharging large volumes of water during the mining process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Timeline of Events

1993 – San Juan Ridge Mine begins operations.

Sept. 1995 – Jan. 1996 – A breach of an aquifer at the mine, caused millions of gallons of mine waste discharge to spill into Spring and Shady Creeks. The breach also drained 12 community wells (including those of Grizzly Hill School and North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center).

Aug. 1997 – San Juan Ridge Mine closed.

Sept. 1997 – A community well supplying Grizzly Hill School tested positive for sky-high levels of iron, aluminum, nickel and manganese, as well as sulfate, turbidity, color and odor, all exceeding California standards for drinking water supplies.

1997 – 2003 – Sarah Yarnell, a UC Davis doctoral student, conducted studies evaluating the rate of sediment transport in relation to aquatic habitat suitability, particularly with concern for the Foothill Yellow-legged Frog.

2012 – San Juan Ridge Mine Corporation proposed to resume operations.

2012 – SYRCL began hydrologic studies and amphibian surveys on Spring and Shady Creek. Becomes involved in permitting process, commenting and advocating for protection of the watershed.

2013-2016 – SYRCL studied how much mercury was moving in Spring and Shady Creeks downstream of the mine site and conducted surveys to determine the abundance of Foothill Yellow-legged Frog.

2016 – San Juan Ridge Mine Corporation permit proposal was denied.

 

The San Juan Ridge Taxpayer’s Association (SJRTA)

Formed in 1975, SJRTA membership includes residents and non-resident landowners of the San Juan Ridge and other concerned citizens. The primary purpose of the SJRTA is to promote the environmental, social and economic well-being of the rural San Juan Ridge community, in Nevada County, CA. The Association accomplishes its purpose by research, education, analysis, community outreach and advocacy.

Water for Gold 

The film, Water for Gold, tells the story of the San Juan Ridge community’s efforts to protect its water, resources and economy that were threatened by the proposed reopening of the San Juan Ridge Mine.

This powerful 35-minute documentary, by Tom and Debra Weistar is now available for viewing online.

History of Siskon Mine

On January 24, 2006, Wolf Creek Community Alliance hosted a talk by Liese Greensfelder and Kurt Lorenz on the history of the Siskon Mine on the San Juan Ridge. The audience came to learn from the experience of the San Juan Ridge community— experience that might be useful as the Grass Valley community responds to a proposed re-opening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine. This summary of the presentation was written by Connie Sturm.

In April 1992, the CEO of Siskon Gold Corporation, Tim Callaway, approached the San Juan Ridge Taxpayers’Association about his company’s plan to re-open a mine in the North Columbia Diggings. Siskon’s proposal was not the first; our community had been struggling with mining proposals for the previous 15 years. Times have changed since the 1800s when mining was going full-bore here. People have less tolerance for the kinds of social and environmental disruptions that mines cause.  Read more…

History of Mining on Spring Creek and Shady Creek

North Columbia, California mining crew working
Mining crew working. North Columbia, California. (Plumas County Museum)

Hank Meals, July 9, 2012

The San Juan Ridge is between the Middle Yuba River and the South Yuba River. Fifty million years ago there were a series of gold bearing (auriferous) streams here in what geologists call the Tertiary Period. This was prior to the formation of the Sierra Nevada. Possibly 20 million but certainly by 10 million years ago the northern Sierra was uplifted and tilted to the west. This was a gradual process that caused the Yuba and other streams to flow generally westward. In the process, the westerly flowing streams eroded portions of the tertiary streams releasing gold into the Feather, Yuba, Bear, and American River drainages. The streamside gold that was the impetus for the gold rush was, in large part, eroded from the ancient streams beds.

Meanwhile, segments of the tertiary channels were left intact as gravel beds on present-day ridges. In many places there is a volcanic lava cap covering the tertiary gravels but on the lower San Juan Ridge, between North Columbia and French Corral, the lava cap has eroded away. Easy access to tertiary gravels combined with sufficient water to mine them facilitated mining in the area. The headwaters of Spring Creek and Shady Creek are near the junction of two large tertiary streams “where the auriferous gravel deposits are extensive” (Mac Boyle 1919:100, Lawler:1989). Read more…

See the Bibliography.