The Caminetti Act

Clear Evidence of Congressional Intent

The 1893 Caminetti Act is clear Federal Preemption over State Regulations


Hydraulic mining was never banned

Ever heard of the Caminetti Act?

No? Well you're not alone. In response to the 1884 Sawyer Decision, which closed most of the hydraulic mines, miners and the state of California petitioned Congress to step in and save hydraulic mining. Passed in 1893 the Caminetti Act established the federal agency, the California Debris Commission. Congress provided the Commission with the sole authority over regulating mining which impacted the rivers at the exclusion of the State.

If you Googled the Caminetti Act and ended up here, you may have also checked some other sites which said the Caminetti Act gave the State's the power to regulate the mines. That's not true, but you don't have to believe us, you can read the History, the Actual Act, and the Transfer, provided at the bottom of the page and come to your own conclusions.

Did you know most of those reservoirs in the foothills were built by the California Debris Commission, paid for by miners, and built to catch mining tailings. Miners bought and paid for those reservoirs.

When Congress established the California Debris Commission, they provided them with the sole, and undisputed, authority over mining debris in California. As part of the Act Congress authorized the Commission to establish contracts with miners whereby the miners would pay 3% of their gross revenues in exchange for the Commission building dams to contain the debris from the hydraulic operations. Many of the reservoirs were built with the express purpose of capturing mining debris, and a contract still exists between the federal government and miners to catch the tailings we may produce.

The California Debris Commission existed for nearly 100 years, from 1893 until 1986, and was largely responsible for building all the reservoirs on the Bear, Yuba and Feather Rivers. The Commission was abolished in 1986 and its duties transferred to the Sacramento District of the Army Corps of Engineers, but the Caminetti Act was never abolished or repealed. The mission of the California Debris Commission still exists.

In the California Supreme Court Rinehart Decision the justices wrote they could find no evidence Congress intended to protect mining under the 1872 General Mining Law. The California Supreme Court justices went so far as to say the Sawyer Decision proved state supremacy. The justices compared the miniscule scale of modern small-scale dredging with the enormous environmental impact of hydraulic mining and concluded the silence of Congress meant the 1872 Mining Law only provided miners a possessory interest in a mining claim.

Really? Ever hear of the Caminetti Act?

We didn't think so.

Being tone deaf we miners tend to ignore information which doesn't support our position. We choose legal cases which prove we have THE solution, and we ignore cases like the Sawyer Decision because it doesn't support our position.

The Sawyer Decision

The Sawyer Decision wasn't actually the death blow to hydraulic mining. An earlier decision known as Gold Run (The People v. Gold Run Ditch and Mining Company, 1882) was the death blow to hydraulic mining. The Sawyer Decision followed 2 years later but the precedent had already been set. In the Gold Run case the court issued a permanent injunction against dumping mining debris in the rivers, the same injunction later issued by Judge Sawyer.

The Sawyer Decision wasn't arbitrary. Judge Lorenzo Sawyer was himself a 49'er who had little luck looking for gold and took up the legal profession. Judge Sawyer knew the impact of his decision and carefully thought it out. He travelled to the hydraulic mines and the farms in the valleys. He visited the debris dams and witnessed the impact of the tailings from the mines. He wanted to be fully informed of both sides of the issue in an age where visiting the mines meant going by horse.

In July 2016 the California Supreme Court claimed the Sawyer Decision was evidence Congress didn't intend to protect mining, but the Court got it wrong, or we miners failed to explain precedent.

Gold Run and the Sawyer Decision were both based on public nuisance lawsuits, not the 1872 Mining Law. Certainly the miners defended using the 1872 Mining Law, but neither case was a direct assault on the Mining Law as was the State's prosecution of Rinehart.

As we know Judge Sawyer issued a permanent injunction against the dumping of hydraulic debris into the rivers of the Bear, Yuba and San Joaquin and within two years California found itself in a deep depression and petitioned Congress to provide funds to re-open the hydraulic mines while still protecting the downstream interests. In 1888 Congress provided the funds to the Army Corps of Engineers and appointed several members to a commission to reestablish hydraulic mining.

The commission, known as the Biggs Commission, reported to Congress it was possible to re-open hydraulic mining if dams were built on the rivers to prevent the tailings from washing down to the valley. The miners and the State of California, urged Congress to adopt the Biggs Commissions recommendations and in 1893, Senator Anthony Caminetti of Amador County introduced a bill which established and funded the California Debris Commission.

The California Debris Commission was charged with the planning and construction of debris dams on the various rivers. The law required the funding of these dams to be paid for by taxes on miners who were upstream from the dams. Prior to operating a hydraulic operation the miners would need to seek a permit from the California Debris Commission - not the State.

The California Debris Commission built many of the reservoirs which still exist today.

Bowman Lake Shotgun Lake Island Lake
Middle Lake Lake Englebright Weaver Lake
Eureka Lake Lake Faucherie Jackson Lake
Lake English Lake Fordyce Meadow Lake
Bullards Bar Reservoir North Fork of the American Lake Combie

Those Are Miner's Reservoirs

If you're looking at a reservoir in Gold Country it was most likely built by the California Debris Commission to support mining.

The California Debris Commission was the sole authority on permitting hydraulic mines. As U.S. Army Corps of Engineers historian, Joseph Hagwood, wrote in the History of the California Debris Commission...

"The Commission was the supreme authority in all matters related to mining."

He went even further when discussing how powerful the Commission was,

"Few groups in history have been afforded such absolute authority over a private sector of society as was given the California Debris Commission."

Does this sound like clear Congressional intent to preempt state laws to protect mining? We thought so too.

Regardless of this effort by Congress, within six years there was not a single large scale hydraulic pit operating within California. Several smaller scale operations continued, and hydraulic mining never stopped along the Trinity and Klamath Rivers, but large scale mining would never again return to California.

The hydraulic mining industry actually operated on thin margins. The nature of washing away huge amounts of overburden, often hundreds of feet deep, to reach a pay layer which might pay pennies per yard, meant a tax on the amount of overburden washed made this approach infeasible. The average recovery rate from a hydraulic operation was 30 cents per cubic yard at a time when gold was selling for $19 an ounce. In operations such as North Bloomfield, the cost to restrain the tailings, while paying a tax on those tailings, meant their ability to continue was short lived.

Dredges Replace the Monitors


Bucket Line Dredge at Work (sort of)

Despite the efforts of Congress and the California Debris Commission the death of hydraulic mining was sealed.

In 1898 the first floating gold dredge began operations on the Feather River near Oroville. The success of this first dredge quicly led to other dredging operations on the Yuba, Feather and American Rivers. The California Debris Commission was quick to establish their jurisdiction over dredge mining and began requiring permits from miners to operate a gold dredge.

The Commission continued to require dredge permits until the 1920's when they changed course and only required dredge permits for the Yuba River reasoning only the Yuba River contained enough federal land to establish jurisdiction. The Commission further expanded their jurisdiction to lode mines operating on federal land and required permits from the quartz mines for dumping tailings into the ravines.

In effect the Commission established, and retained, sole regulatory authority over all mining on federal lands. The evidence is clear Congress established the Debris Commission as the sole, and only, regulator of mining in California.

The history of the Caminetti Act, and the California Debris Commission, shows an extensive involvement of Congress in protecting and promoting mining on federal land. During a span of thirty years after the passage of the Act the Commission approved over 1,000 permits to hydraulic mine.

Congress continued to take an interest in protecting mining in California and in 1907 amended the Caminetti Act to provide relief to small operators by authorizing the construction of what were known as the high dams. These massive dams were built further downstream, such as Bullards Bar, and were meant to capture all of the upstream tailings. This meant every hydraulic operation on any tributary upstream from Bullards Bar could be permitted to operate with the dam being in place to capture all of the tailings and avoid each operation from having to construct its own debris dam.

The Bullards Bar dam was built in 1927 by the Yuba River Power Company for the purpose of providing power and restraining mining debris. At the time of its completion 12 hydraulic mines were using the reservoir as containment for the hydraulic debris and tailings. The construction of these large debris reservoirs once again made the prospect of hydraulic mining feasible and the miners pushed the federal government to build more of these high dams. The federal government responded by requiring the submission of applications, and requiring a commitment from miners to use these reservoirs for tailings to help pay for the construction. The miners would be required to pay an upfront fee, then an annual recurring fee based on the amount of tailings they produced. In 1934 Congress approved the building of more high dams for tailings storage.

The 1937 amendment required the miners to pay for the erection of these dams which were built on the Yuba, Bear and American Rivers. "...that work shall not begin on any reservoir until the repayment of the capital cost thereof by the payment of taxes on materials hydraulically mined from the natural assured satisfaction by the Secretary of War."

It's interesting to note the language in this amendment of "the natural bank." By 1937 there were countless operations on the rivers and tributaries mining the tailings filling the valleys and ravines of the mountains. These operations were not required to pay for the debris dams, only the operations which were adding new material to the valleys.

These high dams were completed and in the early 1940's the relief the hydraulic miners hoped for was finally achieved and hydraulic mining once again began in the mountains, but it would never reach the scale of the 1880s. In the early 1940s there were only 43 permitted hydraulic mines operating in California.

It's Always About the Water

The end of hydraulic mining wasn't because of regulation, permitting or the ability to make a profit. It was due to a lack of water. Anyone who has spent much time in the Gold Country knows how many miles of ditches and flumes served the hydraulic pits. Virtually every stream and rivulet was dammed and diverted to provide water for the pits. During the 60 years of stop and start hydraulic mining the majority of the these ditches fell into disrepair and the water rights were sold off to irrigation companies for use by the valley farmers. When Congress finally provided the relief needed to resume large scale operations, there was no water.

We frequently hear the Sawyer Decision banned hydraulic mining, but it did no such thing. Congress stepped in and with great effort and financial commitment attempted to keep the hydraulic mines operating, while preventing their debris from damaging the valley. The duties of the California Debris Commission were inherited by the Army Corps of Engineers and you could still obtain a permit today to open a hydraulic mine.

Somehow, over time we miners have allowed California to assume a role Congress never intended. In all our legal filings we've never mentioned the preemptive effect of the Caminetti Act.

Now that we're aware of this important mining act we have begun using it in our legal fight as evidence of preemption. In the Oregon Bohmker case the recent legal filings use the Caminetti Act as evidence of Congression intent to preempt, and our most recent filing, the amicus brief in support of the Rinehart Supreme Court petiton, we provided the Caminetti Act as evidence of preemption.

There is no stronger evidence Congress intended to preempt state laws against mining than the Caminetti Act, let's start using the power of this Act to defend mining.

If you want to read the full history of the Caminetti Act you can read more by clicking   History of the California Debris Commission

Click here to read the Caminetti Act

Click here to read the Transfer of Responsibilites