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Challenging The Russian River Gravel Mining Plan

The Russian River, in California's Sonoma County.

The Russian River was once a world-famous fishing river for salmon and steelhead, but today precious little habitat remains for these fish, and they are at risk of extinction.

Photo courtesy of Ingrid Taylar

What's at Stake

The county of Sonoma, California approved a massive instream gravel mining operation on the Russian River that endangers public health, property values and the crucial habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead trout near.


In December 2010, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors authorized the Syar Industries to extract up to 350,000 tons of gravel from a 6.5 mile stretch of the Russian River every year, for a period of 15 years. The county’s own analysis concluded that the river can only naturally replenish about 181,000 tons of gravel per year. The excessive mining would therefore have exceeded the natural replenishment process.

The scale of this project would have been a significant source of pollution, affected downstream property values through bank erosion and destroyed essential habitat for the many endangered species of fish, including salmon and steelhead trout. Damage from in-stream gravel mining to salmon and steelhead populations is well-documented, yet; safeguards to prevent such impacts were not properly addressed in the county’s environmental impact report.

In January 2011, Earthjustice challenged the approval of the project in a civil action suit against the County of Sonoma and Syar Industries. The lawsuit set out to ensure that the adverse impacts to the endangered steelhead and salmon, property owners and the river’s ecology were properly analyzed, understood and mitigated.

In October 2012, Earthjustice and Syar Industies reached a settlement that limited the mining to 175,000 tons of gravel each year for the first three years, instead of the initially approved 350,000 tons. An additional 40,000 tons will be allowed to be salvaged strictly through habitat improvement projects. The settlement also requires the establishment of a comprehensive adaptive management and monitoring process, under which an independent scientific review team will analyze and guide annual mining plans to ensure the extracted gravel does not exceed the amount that is naturally replenished from upstream.

Under the settlement, the two organizations represented by Earthjustice, Russian Riverkeeper and the Redwood Empire Chapter of Trout Unlimited, will receive funding to hire their own scientific consultants, who will actively participate in the ongoing adaptive management to ensure the functionality of the process. The additional monitoring and county oversight will also allow for input from landowners and the community.

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