Prospectors See A Golden Lining In California's Drought The state's historic drought has been bad for farmers but good for gold seekers, who can now pan areas that have long been buried under feet of water.

Prospectors See A Golden Lining In California's Drought

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It's been a rainy weekend here in California, but unless you're a tourist, that's a good thing. California has been locked in the grip of a historic drought. Farmers may be suffering. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, others are finding an opportunity.


NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Wayne Warren shakes wet dirt out of a plastic bucket and into a metal chute, tossing aside the bigger rocks. He's all smiles because for him, California's drought is...


ROTT: Yes, golden. Warren is knee-deep in the San Gabriel River, an hour outside of Los Angeles. That chute next to him is a sluice box. The water washes away the dirt in a muddy cloud, and he leans over the box.

WARREN: I don't know if you can see all that yellow in there.

ROTT: Oh, yeah.

Out of the creek, he taps his findings into a green plastic gold pan and gives it a few swirls. What's left...

WARREN: Sure is pretty in the sun, huh?

ROTT: Yeah. It's beautiful. Guess that's why they call it gold, huh?


ROTT: Consider this the golden lining of California's historic drought.

CURT TIMMONS: Yeah. It's good for the gold prospectors. They love it because they can get down to that bedrock without using any scuba equipment.

ROTT: This is Curt Timmons, another gold prospector and the owner of a mining supply shop just down the mountain. He's been walking the riverbanks of the San Gabriel his whole life.

TIMMONS: Normally, it'd be six feet over your head. And now it's so low, it'd probably be up to your knees in depth, if that.

ROTT: Little rain and even less snowpack have made the San Gabriel River more of a stream. And it's not just here.

Kevin Hoagland is with the Gold Prospectors Association of America.

KEVIN HOAGLAND: And it's beyond just the state of California. Where I'm at in Arizona, we haven't even had our first snow yet.

ROTT: He says that's opened up riverbeds there too.

HOAGLAND: It's given people an opportunity to literally just go in with a gold pan and a shovel, and be able to get in some of these cracks and crevices and find gold that you wouldn't normally be able to recover.

ROTT: Hoagland says it's not 1849 again. No need to pack the wagon and head West. But it is exciting for most people, not Maury Roos. He's the chief hydrologist at California's Department of Water Resources.

MAURY ROOS: Well, it's a bad thing for those who need water, and I imagine it's not the best thing either for the fish that live in the rivers.

ROTT: Roos says it's a good thing some people are benefitting, but overall, this drought is bad. Many of California's rivers are at or near record low water volumes. And even with rain, their outlook isn't good. He says that will affect fisheries, already endangered salmon, watersheds...

ROOS: It will even affect the trees and the vegetation.

ROTT: And that's not to mention the people, the cities that are under mandatory water restrictions, or the farmers who let their lands go fallow, or unplanted.

For a clearer picture, just go back to where our guys were looking for gold, on the San Gabriel River. Follow it south, to where it pools behind the San Gabriel Dam, and you'll see high water lines some hundred feet above the reservoir's surface. The three major dams in this canyon hold nearly 40,000 Olympic-size swimming pools' worth of water. According to the Los Angeles County Public Works, less than 1 percent is available for release. That doesn't quite have that same golden glimmer.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.


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