California Drought Launches New Gold Rush

With rivers low, professional and hobbyist miners uncover more metals.

COLFAX, California—Bruce Meyer took a smoke break on the gravel bank of the scenic Bear River, deep in central California's Gold Country. He was wearing a wetsuit and bandana, and water dripped from his thick, graying beard.

Meyer had spent much of the morning on that first Sunday in August hunting for gold in the middle of the stream, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Colfax. He showed off several shiny flakes in his pan, each about half the size of a grain of rice. He rinsed them with water and then sucked them into a small plastic bottle.

"Everyone has something they do; mine's gold," said Meyer.

Meyer hails from Carson City, Nevada, but he has spent much of the summer staying in his truck northeast of Sacramento to be near California's rich mineral deposits. And perhaps paradoxically, thanks to the worst drought in the state's recorded history, his work has gotten a little easier.

"When I started coming here four years ago, the river was about four feet higher and running fast," Meyer said. But now, it was easier to work in.

Meyer has been looking for gold off and on over the last 14 years. "The more I do it, the more I find," he said. A few years ago, he quit his job and started prospecting full time.

Last year, Meyer found a total of about four ounces of gold in California and Nevada rivers. At recent prices of around $1,300 an ounce, his find was worth about $5,200. It's not a lot of money, but Meyer lives simply. And he hopes to find bigger paydirt soon, like the stories he's heard of payouts up to $75,000.

Everyone has something they do; mine's gold.

"The water isn't too bad this time of year, but it gets real cold in spring," he said. (See "New Technology Measures Snowpack Amid California Drought.")

New Gold Rush?

From his office on the leafy campus of nearby California State University, Sacramento, hydrogeologist and geology department chair Tim Horner explained that prospectors like Meyer "have been able to get to places they couldn't before" because the drought has shrunk many of the state's rivers, "some down to a trickle."

As an example, Horner mentioned that one of his students recently found about $900 worth of gold in a stream that had previously been too treacherous to explore.

Although most of the world's gold is now produced in massive open-pit mines, "looking for gold [the old-fashioned way] is a popular hobby, and some people are making a living doing it," Horner said.

In fact, Frank Sullivan of the Pioneer Mining Supplies shop in Auburn says sales of prospecting equipment have been up 20 to 25 percent because of the drought. With his snow-white beard and hearty laugh, Sullivan looks the part of a miner in a town that was founded during the Gold Rush boom of the middle and late 1800s. In fact, the site where gold was first discovered in California, at Sutter's Mill in 1840, lies only about a half hour away.

Sullivan has worked in the mining business for about 50 years, in manufacturing equipment and supply sales. Before that his father worked in local mines.

"Everything in this area had to do with gold," said Sullivan, who started his store 35 years ago.

He stocks all manner of picks, pans, filters, sluice boxes, metal detectors, guidebooks, and snorkeling gear. As customers admired his collection of quartz crystals and petrified wood, Sullivan said he recently turned the store over to his daughter, Heather Willis, though he still puts in volunteer shifts to help her get some time off. The largest piece of gold he ever pulled from a California river was a nugget about half as big as his thumb that weighed about three-quarters of an ounce. It would be worth around $1,000 today.

Even after more than a century of searching, miners "still find stuff every day" in the area, Sullivan said. He buys some of that gold to resell, as do local pawn shops and jewelry stores.

From First-Timers to Experienced Snipers

The simplest way to get into gold mining is to comb through sediments along the riverbank. Gold is 19 times heavier than water and denser than about anything else in the stream, so it quickly settles to the bottom or into cracks between rocks or grains.

Among those searching for it was the Puumala family, who had set up on the bank of the Bear River that cool Sunday morning. The rushing water made a pleasant sound over the rocks and a great blue heron flapped overhead.

"We're hoping we can find something you can actually pick up with tweezers, so we can say we went gold panning and actually found gold," said John Puumala, who lives in nearby West Sacramento. "It's not about the money, but we'd like to have something to keep as a souvenir."

Except for one time at a theme park, the Puumalas had never looked for gold. Normally, they would have liked to go fishing to relax on a Sunday, but the low stream levels and warmer water temperature had made that difficult, so they decided to try panning.

The Puumalas had spent $50 to $60 on mining supplies, including some plastic pans and a small sluice box. They didn't have to get a permit to mine this way, but there has been talk in Sacramento of requiring such licenses soon.

Puumala got to work with a shovel and dug sediment out of the riverbed from under a large boulder.

"Before, the water line was probably way up there," he said, pointing to gravel several yards up the bank. "So I figure when the water was higher it might have washed down and deposited gold around this boulder."

He shoveled the wet material over a filter and into a bucket. His two young daughters tossed the large stones that stuck on top back into the cold water. Then his wife helped his daughters pour the sand-size grains gradually into a three-foot-long sluice box that was anchored in about an inch of water. The heaviest grains caught on the riffles of the box, while the lighter stuff washed into the river.

When the riffles were caked with dark sediment, John's daughter Jordan poured that into a pan and added some water. She swirled it around for a few minutes, while standing inches deep in the water in her rubber boots. A few tiny flakes glinted from the bottom.

"That's gold, isn't that cool?" asked John. Jordan nodded.

About a hundred yards upstream, Bruce Meyer was facedown in the middle of the river. Using his mask and snorkel, he was looking for gold in the sediment caught in a crack between rocks. He raked up the material with a pick, in a mining technique called "sniping." If he found anything shiny, he stirred it up. If it floated, it was pyrite (fool's gold) or mica. If it sank it was gold.

Later, Meyer explained that he used to mine in the same way as the Puumalas, but then he started finding more gold when he switched to sniping a few years ago. "I like sniping a lot better," he said.

Outside the Gold Country Museum in nearby Auburn, Ray Dods of the Mother Lode Goldhounds club described sniping as "finding a treasure chest." And the miner's task is simply to "find the door," he said.

With a thick handlebar mustache and period leather hat, Dods looked as if he had just stepped off a claim in 1870. In fact, connecting with the area's colorful history is what he likes best about mining.

Dods' fellow club member Ed Ebbit said his mother had won the local speed gold panning contest for 13 years. She died while panning not long ago, "doing what she loved," he said.

Sullivan had found his thousand-dollar nugget years ago through another mining process, called dredging, in which a large scoop pulls up sediment for sorting. The state has declined to grant any permits for that process since 2009, saying it can churn up toxic material like mercury in the sediment, impair water quality, and disturb fish.

How Did the Gold Get in Those Hills?

Since 1840, billions of dollars in gold have been found in California, in addition to billions in platinum, silver, lead, and other metals. The Gold Rush swelled the area's population and transformed a sleepy frontier territory into a booming state. A few got rich, while about half the miners made a modest profit and half broke even or worse. Those that sold the prospectors goods and services tended to make out the best.

The frenzy was not without its downsides, however. Native Americans were decimated by the new visitors and the diseases they brought. Crime and violence spread through mining camps and towns, often fueled by whiskey. Prostitution was rampant. Immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere were discriminated against. (See "The Real Price of Gold" in National Geographic magazine.)

Once you get the fever you'll have it until you die.

Miners also left scars on the landscape in their relentless search for precious metals, Horner said. At first, early prospectors could pick finger-size nuggets right out of the streams. Once the low-hanging fruit was gone, miners began combing through the sediment, using pans, sluices, and a sorting device called a rocker box. Miners then diverted whole rivers, tore up the beds of dried streams, and took to blasting rock away with high-pressure hoses.

That "hydraulicking" process tore loose so much sediment that it raised riverbeds and even the floor of parts of the Central Valley and created bars in San Francisco Bay, until downstream folks got the state legislature to outlaw the practice in 1884. Miners also hammered into hillsides in search of "mother lodes," rich gold veins. In the process they also left behind tons of toxic mercury and cyanide waste, which they used to leach gold from ore.

According to Horner, when the magma that formed the Sierra Nevada cooled, gold often coalesced into veins along the edges of quartz formations. Over time, the veins weathered, and bits of gold broke off and got washed down into streams.

After so many years of mining, "it's crazy how much gold is still here," Meyer said. In fact, experts say previous prospectors recovered only a small percentage of the gold they worked over, thanks to inefficiencies and the tiny size of much of the fragments.

A Golden Future?

Steve Lindgren, a ranger who oversees the Bear River campground and recreational use area with the California Land Management Patrol, said the relatively high price of gold and the relatively weak economy have brought out more panners in recent years. The fact that low water means they can wade further upstream and "get to new areas" hasn't hurt, he said.

Horner said there's a good chance California's climate will get hotter and drier in the coming years. Although Sullivan worries that there may eventually be "not enough water to pan," at least for the next few years, it could open up even more stream reaches for miners like Meyer and the Puumalas.

"People come out and think they'll get rich but then they find out it's a lot of work," Meyer said.

Back at his store, Sullivan agreed. With a chuckle and a wink, he said, "Once you get the fever you'll have it until you die."

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