The Detrimental Impacts of Russian River Gravel Mining

By Scott Vouri / Sierra Club Redwood Needles / October 2001

Since the 1940s, millions of tons of gravel have been mined from the Russian River and its banks. This continues to happen in the drinking water supply for 600,000 people. Since the early 70’s scientists have documented the negative consequences of in-stream and open-pit gravel mining. In order to preserve our water supply this hazardous practice must be stopped.

The Russian River itself is not actually the source of Sonoma and Marin County’s drinking water. It is just a narrow ribbon floating on top of a giant underground reservoir of gravel and water called an aquifer. The Russian River Aquifer is our water source, our water storage tank and our water filter. Thanks to nature, we do not have to filter our drinking water here in the North Bay. The gravel does it for us for free. This is the same gravel that the mining companies are extracting. So each cubic yard of gravel taken from the River, removes a cubic yard of water storage AND a cubic yard of our water filter.

Gravel mining also affects our drinking water in other ways. Both open-pit and in-stream mining lower the groundwater table, drying up local residential and agricultural wells. In addition, the walls of the giant open-pit mines, which cut deep into the aquifer, become clogged with silt. This blocks the flow of water through the aquifer to our drinking water system’s intake wells. Also, during the first winter rains, tons of sediment that has been trapped in gravel bars for decades, newly exposed by bar “skimming”, is released. This sediment flows downstream, silting over salmon spawning beds and clogging our water system intake wells.

n-stream mining in excess of the amount of gravel replenished each year causes the undermining of bridges and erosion of the River’s banks and its tributaries. The Healdsburg &endash; 101 bridge has already been replaced at a cost to taxpayers of $10 million dollars. Now the Alexander Valley Bridge at Jimtown is near collapse and will have to be replaced at a cost of $6.5 million dollars.

any gravel miners contend that in-stream mining prevents flooding. However, just the opposite is true. While widening and deepening the river channel may protect the banks immediately adjacent to the mining site, it also “channelizes” the River, causing an increase in water velocity during winter months. This causes erosion and flooding downstream; effectively protecting a single spot on the River’s bank at the cost of many people downstream.

Finally, the impact of gravel mining on fish species is well documented and is threatening the existence of Steelhead, Coho and Chinook salmon in the Russian River. Gravel mining destroys riparian habitat needed by the fish, removes spawning beds (the gravel bars) and silts up downstream spawning grounds.

The Sierra Club is working with a coalition of individuals and other watershed protection groups, including Protect Our Water Resources (POWR!) to end gravel mining in the Russian River and its floodplain via public education, appealing gravel mining permitting decisions, lobbying local elected officials to take a stand against mining in our drinking water and when necessary, litigating. For more information or to get involved with Sierra Club’s effort please contact Margaret Pennington at 829-2294. If you’d like to learn more about POWR! please contact Scott Vouri at, 1557 Mauro Pietro Drive, Petaluma, CA 94954 or 782-1038.