Reclaiming the Sierra

Funding for legacy mine cleanup established in new Water Bond bills

September 4, 2013

SACRAMENTO, 4 September 2013 – The Sierra Fund’s advocacy campaign to “Get the Mercury Out” is reflected in three different places in the new Assembly water bond bill now under consideration in the legislature.

Remediating mercury discharge from legacy mines is explicitly included in the Senate version of the bond, and the Administration is receptive to our ideas.

Along with our partner Tuleyome, over a dozen organizations and have signed on to support our campaign including local water agencies as well as mining and conservation partners.

Details on legacy mine cleanup in the Assembly Water Bond Framework:

The framework offers opportunities to take action on addressing the continued impact of legacy mines in the Sierra and Inner Coast Range on the state’s water quality and storage projects.  The Assembly Water Bond framework brings new resources to help address these legacy mine problems under three general areas:

Number VI.  Protecting Rivers, Lakes, Streams and Watersheds: 

Legacy mines make a huge contribution to the mercury loading to the state’s water – including the entire watershed of the San Francisco Bay and Delta – every time it rains.  For example, one tunnel draining one hydraulic mine where we have collected data over two years has been found to contribute as much as a pound of mercury to the river in every major rainstorm (compare this to the Sacramento Sanitation District’s discharge permit that limits mercury discharge in the river by the county to only 2.3 pounds per year).  This discharge consists of elemental mercury that is bonded to silt particles so tiny that they can float for miles on the current. This mercury-contaminated water travels hundreds of miles from tiny streams and creeks and ends up in the Delta, Bay and eventually the ocean.

The least expensive and most effective way to treat this mercury problem is to remediate hydraulic mines and other legacy mines.  While we are not seeking specific amounts or earmarks for any project, the framework does allow much needed funding for pilot projects.

Number VIII. Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Sustainability

Mercury pollution originates in the Inner Coast Range and Sierra – 98% of the mercury in the San Francisco Bay and Delta comes from legacy gold mines in the Sierra and mercury mines in the Inner Coast Range.  About 1/3 of the mercury in the Delta and Bay comes from the Cache Creek, where many unremediated legacy mines discharge mercury-contaminated sediments every time it rains.

Mercury mines require continuous treatment because the mercury deposit is on site. These mines need to be identified, assessed, prioritized, and cleaned up. This framework would allow funding for pilot projects such those proposed by Tuleyome in Napa County.

Number IX. Storage for Climate Change

This element of the framework talks about maintaining water storage in existing reservoirs.  This is especially challenging in light of projected changes in precipitation caused by climate change. Sedimentation poses a massive problem for water storage – one USGS study found that 200 California reservoirs had lost 50% of their storage capacity to sedimentation, equivalent to 1.7 million acre feet of water. As precipitation in the upper watersheds of the Sierra Nevada – home to many legacy gold mines – changes from snow to rain the rate of sedimentation is sure to increase.

Sediment contaminated with mercury eroding from legacy mines settles in reservoirs and is difficult to remove safely. Reclaiming storage capacity in reservoirs that are already built by removing mercury-laden sediment is a cost-effective way to address both the mercury problem and the storage problem of sedimentation.


The Sierra Fund has spent nearly a decade working on the problems associated with legacy mines, and has developed a strong coalition of organizations interested in finding solutions to these problems.

This coalition includes water agencies including: the Nevada Irrigation District, El Dorado County Water Agency and the Mountain County Water Resources Agency;  private business including Teichert Materials; and a large number of conservation groups including Tuleyome, Environmental Working Group, Planning & Conservation League and the Sierra Nevada Alliance.

These groups vigorously endorse our campaign to “get the mercury out” by ensuring that any water bond that goes before the voters addresses these legacy mine issues.