Gravel Mining in the Russian River
Russian River at Risk…Yet Again Continued Gravel Mining Threatens Our River Valley Aquifer
September 16 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Hearing
In a state where water is our most precious commodity - and rivers are few and far between - and aggregate can be mined from land instead of a river bed - and this very river, the Russian River is center to our economy in more ways than we can count - it make no sense to turn back to a time when we ignored our environment to obtain natural resources. - V
By Dennis Hill and Chris DeBenedetti
Westside Association to Save Agriculture
For more than 20 years farmers and residents along the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley have been fighting the devastating effects of gravel mining in the terraces. Thirty percent of the aquifer has been destroyed over the last 40 years from gravel mining. Now it is beginning to negatively affect groundwater flow and wine grape quality.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has historically approved all of Syar’s requests with the argument that the need for gravel is more important than the negative effects on water supply. That is clearly no longer true. There are other sources of PCC-quality gravel and water is now recognized as a more precious commodity. The supervisors are scheduled to vote Aug. 19 on whether to amend the 1994 Aggregate Resources Management (ARM) Plan, which banned terrace mining after 2006 because of its well-chronicled negative effects on the environment.
But there are many other reasons why the people of Sonoma and Marin Counties should strongly oppose Syar's application. We ask you to consider:
Breaking the ARM Plan's promises to farmers and vintners would set a very bad legal precedent for the County. After all, what would stop the strip miners from coming back again and again once that door is re-opened? What would prevent other well-connected and powerful special interests from doing the same? According to the ARM Plan, the mining firms were supposed to be limited to 100 acres, and companies like Syar were supposed to reclaim the pits. But as long as they can keep mining, they are not required to reclaim them. Reversing the law against terrace mining would be yet another broken promise by Sonoma County officials.
Allowing strip-mining gravel will destroy the aquifer and rob the County of fresh water, a resource so scarce and increasingly valuable that experts are calling it the “new oil.” This would hurt the County's economy, not help it. The Russian River Valley grows world-renowned Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The gravel pits are creating undesirable water table conditions for high quality grape growing. Damaging these grapes would damage the County's tourism industry and bring unwanted negative media attention that would badly hurt the region's reputation as an agricultural and environmental leader. In short, there is a thin line between paradise and “Paradise Lost.” A 'yes' vote for Syar would irrevocably cross that line.
We don't want to see one person lose his or her job. But, the few jobs that might be impacted would be offset many times over by the increases in tourism, agriculture and wine production. In fact, maintaining the ban is good economic news for the County because it would provide more jobs and tax revenue for the County's coffers than gravel ever could generate over time. Why? Because grape growing is a sustainable industry; that is, wineries and vintners can harvest the crops year after year, decade after decade, and the Russian River Valley alone employs thousands of workers each year. This economically thriving, environmentally friendly and tourist-yielding industry in the area would be damaged over time if Syar gets its way. Gravel, in contrast, is unsustainable. You mine it once, and only once, and all that's left is a useless pit that is a liability for which future generations will have to pay.
The EIR of the proposed extension of the mining period, states that [not extending] gravel mining is the environmentally superior option. The Supervisors have the rare opportunity to make a decision that both benefits the environment and is the most economically wise decision.
For all of these reasons, we fail to see why Syar Industries' application should be approved. Simply put, the Napa-based company has failed to provide the adequate level of proof necessary to illustrate why the ban on mining should be lifted. Indeed, the facts reflect that lifting the ban will damage the Russian River Valley's long-term tax revenue and rob a key portion of Sonoma County's agricultural strength and its precious resources. In October 1994, Supervisor Tim Smith said that there would be no way he would approve terrace mining to continue for more than ten years. It is now 14 years later and we are still fighting. On September 16, we will see if the Supervisors will keep their promise.
Please contact the Supervisors and ask them to support the ban on terrace mining. Their e-mail addresses may be found online at
Dennis Hill and Chris DeBenedetti
Westside Association to Save Agriculture