COLFAX, Calif. — The California drought has led to a mini gold rush in the same Sierra Nevada foothills that drew legions of fortune seekers from around the world in the mid-1800s, as amateur prospectors dig for riverbed riches in spots that have been out of reach for decades.
“With the drought going on, we’re able to dig in more locations that wouldn’t be accessible at later times,” said Tim Amavisca, who wore waterproof overalls as he panned in the Bear River near Colfax with his teenage daughter on a recent Friday afternoon.
Amavisca, a 38-year-old from Sacramento who recently left the military, has been prospecting several times a week this winter — a time when it’s usually raining and river levels are too high for gold panning.
Leaning over a bed of rocks, Amavisca reached into the river and scooped shovelfuls of sand into a plastic bucket. He and his daughter then poured the sand into a sluice box that’s used to trap gold flakes on textured rubber mats.
“If you see a good-sized flake, that’s when you get excited,” said Amavisca, as he looked for gold in one of the sluice box trays.
Rudy Price walked along the dry rocks of the Bear River with a shovel and pan, surveying the riverbed for good spots for prospecting.
“I do understand that it’s a dramatic impact on everybody during a drought that’s this severe, but at the same token I’m taking advantage of it,” said Price, 39, an amateur prospector who lives in the Colfax area.
One of the worst droughts in California history has prompted the state and federal governments to severely cut water supplies to farms and cities. It’s also left rivers and streams at dangerously low levels, imperiling fish and wildlife.
“You’re seeing flows that are either at or near record lows,” said Jeff Kitchen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Water Science Center. “If this drought were to continue into future years, there could be some severe consequences.”
The drought has exposed old roads, bridges, railway lines and junked cars that are usually submerged in lakes and reservoirs. At the Folsom Lake reservoir, the water’s retreat revealed the remnants of a Gold Rush mining town called Mormon Island, which was flooded when the dam was built in the 1950s.
In mountain rivers and streams, the record-low flows have uncovered new chances to earn some extra money.
The warm, dry winter is bringing in many first-time prospectors to Pioneer Mining Supplies in the Gold Rush-era town of Auburn. The store sells shovels, buckets, pans, rubber boots, maps and mining books, as well as more advanced prospecting equipment such as sluice boxes and gold concentrators.
With good jobs in short supply and gold selling for more than $1,300 an ounce, many local residents are prospecting to supplement their incomes, said store manager Heather Willis.
Her father, Frank Sullivan, who opened the mining store nearly 40 years ago, said business has increased 20 to 25 percent because of the drought. But he’s concerned about the lack of rain because he lives in the mountains and worries about forest fires.
“It’s great for business, but I’d rather see no drought and a lot of rain,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan sold a 4-foot metal sluice box to amateur prospector Trevor Whitehead and his friend.
“The word is definitely out,” Whitehead said. “We’ve seen more people prospecting than usual.”
He said water levels at the North Fork of the American River are about 2 feet below normal, which has opened up new areas for gold panning.
“It’s more of a hobby,” Whitehead said, “but obviously if we hit a nice pocket, then yeah, I would love to make some money.”