California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Suction Dredge Permitting Program

Page updated 3/14/2014

The use of any motorized vacuum or suction dredge equipment as part of a mining operation in any river, stream, or lake is currently prohibited in California.

Fish and Game Code Statutes and Related Regulations

In general, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) regulates suction dredging and the use of any related equipment in California pursuant to Fish and Game Code section 5653 specifically. Under that authority, the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment by any person in any river, stream or lake in California is prohibited, unless authorized under a permit issued by CDFW (Fish & G. Code, § 5653, subd. (a).)

CDFW regulations governing its suction dredge permitting program are found in the California Code of Regulations, Title 14, sections 228 and 228.5. CDFW adopted a comprehensive update of its suction dredge regulations effective April 27, 2012. (Cal. Reg. Notice Register 2012, No. 19-Z, p. 641.) CDFW amended the regulatory definition of suction dredging as an emergency action effective June 28, 2013. (Cal. Reg. Notice Register 2013, No. 28-Z, pp. 1034-1035.) On December 26, 2013, the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) approved CDFW’s proposed CDFW’s readoption of this amendment. (Office of Administrative Law, Notice of Approval of Emergency Regulatory Action, OAL File No. 2013-1216-01 EE.)

Currently, the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment in any river, stream, or lake in California is prohibited by statute, as it has been since August 6, 2009. (Fish & G. Code, § 5653.1, subd. (b).)

CDFW is also prohibited from issuing any suction dredge permits by the same statute.

Prohibited Use of Any Motorized Vacuum or Suction Dredge Equipment

Under CDFW regulations, the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment (i.e., suction dredging) is defined as the use of a suction system to vacuum material from a river, stream, or lake for the extraction of minerals. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 228, subd. (a).)

However, CDFW’s suction dredging regulations do not apply to, prohibit, or restrict nonmotorized recreational mining activities, including panning for gold. (Ibid.; see also Fish & G. Code, § 5653.1, subd. (e).)

Reading together Fish and Game Code sections 5653 and 5653.1, and CDFW’s definition, the use of any motorized device to directly vacuum or suction substrate, sediment, and gravel as part of a mining operation in any river, stream, or lake is currently prohibited in California. The use of any motorized vacuum or suction device to assist in the extraction of minerals as part of an instream mining operation is also prohibited. Likewise, it is unlawful to possess a vacuum or suction dredge in or within 100 yards of any river, stream, or lake. (See Id., § 5653, subd. (d).)

Not prohibited are: (1) nonmotorized recreational mining activities, including panning for gold; and (2) the use of motorized vacuum or suction dredge equipment for regular maintenance of energy or water supply management infrastructure, flood control, or navigational purposes. (Fish & G. Code, § 5653.1, subds. (d), (e).)

Mining Activity Not Prohibited by the Moratorium

The ongoing statutory moratorium established by Fish and Game Code section 5653.1 prohibits some, but not all forms of mining in and near California rivers, streams, and lakes.

Individuals engaged or interested in otherwise lawful instream mining should be aware that other environmental laws may apply to these various other mining practices. Fish and Game Code section 5650, for example, prohibits the placement of materials deleterious to fish, including sand and gravel from outside of the current water level, into the river or stream. Further, Fish and Game Code section 1602 requires that any person notify CDFW before substantially diverting or obstructing the natural flow of, or substantially changing or using any material from the bed, channel or bank of any river, stream or lake. See additional related information.

You should also know that various other mining practices may be subject to the authority of the appropriate Regional Water Quality Control Board. If you have questions about the authority of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, or how to comply with any permitting requirements, please contact them directly.

2013-2014 Emergency Regulatory Actions and Noticed Rulemaking

On June 28, 2013, OAL approved an emergency action by CDFW under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to amend the regulatory definition of suction dredging. (See Cal. Reg. Notice Register 2013, No. 28-Z, pp. 1034-1035; Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, 228, subd. (a).) Effective December 26, 2013, OAL approved CDFWs first readoption of the regulatory definition. (Office of Administrative Law, Notice of Approval of Emergency Regulatory Action, OAL File No. 2013-1216-01 EE.) The new definition remains in effect statewide.

On February 14, 2014, CDFW initiated regular noticed rulemaking to adopt the existing emergency regulatory definition of suction dredging. Under the APA, and absent a second readoption, the existing regulatory definition will expire on March 27, 2014. (Gov. Code, § 11346.1, subd. (e).) Thus, on March 7, 2014, the Department provided notice of a proposed second readoption of the existing emergency definition in order to preserve the existing status quo as a matter of law and on the ground, and in anticipation of the existing definition becoming permanent through the regular noticed rulemaking by CDFW pursuant to the APA. On March 14, 2014, CDFW filed with OAL the request for a second readoption.

March 2014 documents prepared by CDFW as part of the second readoption of emergency rulemaking:

Under the existing and proposed definition, the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment (i.e., suction dredging) is defined for purposes of Sections 228 and 228.5 of Title 14, as well as Fish and Game Code section 5653, as the use of a suction system to vacuum material from a river, stream or lake for the extraction of minerals. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 228, subd. (a), effective June 28, 2013.)  The definition also provides that, for purposes of the same sections, that the definition and the regulations do not apply to, prohibit or restrict nonmotorized recreational mining activities, including panning for gold.  (Cal.Code Regs., tit. 14, § 228, subd. (a).)

February 2014 documents prepared by CDFW as part of the regular rulemaking:

Documents prepared by CDFW as part of the emergency action and related OAL notice:

Documents prepared by CDFW as part of the readoption and OAL notice that the new definition is now in effect:

2013 CDFW Report to the California Legislature

On June 27, 2012, the State of California enacted Senate Bill 1018 (SB 1018), amending Fish and Game Code section 5653.1. (Stats. 2012, ch. 39, § 7.)

SB 1018, among other things, directs CDFW to consult with various agencies, and to provide recommendations to the Legislature by April 1, 2013 regarding statutory changes or authorizations necessary for CDFW to promulgate regulations to implement Fish and Game Code section 5653 which will, among other things, fully mitigate all identified significant environmental effects and include a fee structure that will fully cover CDFW costs to administer its related permitting program. (Fish & G. Code, § 5653.1, subd. (c)(1).)

CDFW prepared the submitted the required report to the California Legislature on April 1, 2013. CDFW’s SB 1018 is available here:

2012 Environmental Review and Rulemaking Effort

On March 16, 2012 CDFW completed a multi-year environmental review and rulemaking effort to update its suction dredge regulations implementing Fish and Game Code section 5653. The regulations as approved by the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and filed with the Secretary of State took effect consistent with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) on April 27, 2012. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, §§ 228, 228.5; Cal. Reg. Notice Register 2012, No. 19-Z, p. 641.) The updated regulations are the first comprehensive update of CDFW’s suction dredging regulations since 1994.

As part of the effort, CDFW also prepared and certified a Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Key documents prepared by CDFW as part of its final action under CEQA and the APA are available here:

The Draft and Final SEIR prepared and certified by CDFW for its Suction Dredge Permitting Program are available here:

Final Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (FSEIR)

Draft Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (DSEIR)

Ongoing Related Litigation

CDFW’s suction dredge permitting program has and continues to be the subject of considerable controversy. By the end of August 2013, 15 lawsuits related to suction dredging had been filed against CDFW since May 2005. Eight of those actions were still pending as of September 1, 2013, seven of which are coordinated before the same judge in San Bernardino County Superior Court by order of the Judicial Council of California. (Suction Dredge Mining Cases, Sup.Ct. San Bernardino County, Judicial Council Proceeding No. JCPRS4720.) At the time of this update a CDFW petition to coordinate and add-on the eighth and most recently filed action to the coordinated proceedings was pending in San Bernardino before the judge presiding over the Suction Dredge Mining Cases.

In general, the litigation pending against CDFW involves challenges by various tribal and environmental, and mining interests to the ongoing statutory moratorium, CDFW’s 2012 environmental review and rulemaking effort, and the 2013 emergency rulemaking action amending the regulatory definition of suction dredging, among other matters.

This webpage will be updated as resources allow should any significant developments occur in the ongoing litigation that affect the general public.

For More Information

Questions to CDFW regarding suction dredging or otherwise lawful mining activities not prohibited by current law should be directed to the appropriate CDFW Regional Office.