Its Patently Ironic…

…that in the heart of the Mother Lode in California that a gold miner is being stymied, in part, by a vestige of the Gold Rush. The story, as reported by the New York Times (slumming if they are watching the left coast), is that the miner wants to reopen a mine but the people living on the ridge nearby are worried about losing their well water.

Why is this ironic?  Well, of course, the reason that the land nearby is privately owned is largely because of the Gold Rush and the change in mineral laws that swept in with the Gold Rush.  Prior to 1866, the law of the land was that mineral lands could not be entered and could only be leased (unless released for sale by an act of Congress).  This was flat out ignored during the Gold Rush and the matter was left up in the air until the end of the Civil War, when eastern legislators wanted to restore the old laws and recover some of the treasure spent to acquire land from Mexico.  Westerners argued that this would kill the mining industry (see?  this isn’t a new argument) and instead won codification of the mining law that had emerged in California.  Among the elements of that mining law was that a miner could eventually patent mineral land–that is, come to gain the title to the land.  

The land occupied by the San Juan Ridge taxpayers (the folks fighting the reopening of the mine) are mineral lands (in fact the photo on the website shows the exposed Eocene gravels bearing the gold). Had the old laws been in place, there would not have been anybody living up on that ridge. What is more, it sounds as though the aquifer being tapped by the folks on the ridge is these very same gravels.

The mining here is a bit unusual for the 21st century.  The gold is actually in the gravel (mainly the lowest gravels).  Basically this was a river back some 40-50 million years ago and as the ancient Sierra were being worn down, the gold in that rock was concentrated in the gravels. It was mined in the 19th century by pointing high pressure streams of water at the gravel, washing down through immense riffle boxes.  Although mercury was frequently used to capture the fine gold, there wasn’t the kind of rock crushing and ore extraction that a hard rock mine would require.

Of course in the old days all the houses on the ridge would have moved as continued mining would have obliterated the ridge, turning it to a slurry heading downstream. This was all stopped by court cases and legislation when farmers in the Sacramento Valley to the west showed that they were damaged by the flood of debris covering their lands. So while the NY Times story implies that the mine owner was bowing to local pressure by not using cyanide to extract the gold, this isn’t the type of deposit that you would usually use cyanide on. Basically you just wash the gravel to get the gold. 

The mine operator did decide to compromise in one way: he opted to mine the deep gravels by tunneling in from the side rather than simply caving the cliffside.  And, from the sounds of things, the mine had the bad luck of hitting a fault that had been acting as an aquaclude (a barrier to the flow of groundwater), dropping the water table for a number of landowners and laying the groundwork for the current opposition. In retrospect, a geophysical survey of the water table might have been a wise move; such  survey would probably reveal steps in the water table reflecting the presence of other barriers to water flow.

Now this is hardly the first or only place where this conflict has played out.  Throughout the Mother Lode, as gold operations faded away, many killed by the end of the gold standard and the prohibition on gold mining during WWII, urban refugees started buying up the land that gold miners had patented many years before. Hillsides once denuded and pocked by hundreds of adits, dozens of mines and immense scars from hydraulic mining softened into rural retreats. When gold mining started to become a profitable business again in the 1980s, the new landowners came face to face with the reality (as opposed to the myth) of gold mining and these kinds of conflicts showed up in many places.  The law of most public land is still that the highest and best use is to pull any minerals out of the ground.

If you are curious, the geology of this North Columbia area (where San Juan Ridge Mine is) is described in USGS Professional Paper 772, available online (but the plates are big files).

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