How Mining Made California

Written by Crystal Howard

California’s Mining History

Idaho Maryland Mine, Grass Valley, CA. Photo courtesy of Mining

Idaho Maryland Mine, Grass Valley, CA. Photo courtesy of Mining

Mining has been an important part of California’s economy and history for generations. The California Gold Rush propelled San Francisco from a 200-resident settlement in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852. As a result, California became the center of global imagination and a desirable destination for hundreds of thousands of people. From an economy that was too small to measure before the Gold Rush, California is now the eighth ranking economy in the world and mining has been there to support its growth from the beginning.

California’s Construction Aggregate Roots

After the Gold Rush, California’s dependence on construction aggregates boomed as the population and development increased. To support its growth, in 1910, the state began to fund the State Highway System. By 1947, California had more than half a dozen major freeways totaling 1,938 miles. At that time, the highway system included I-5, I-8, I-10, I-15, US 40, I-80, I-505, and I-580. By 1955, California’s interstate system had increased to 2,135 miles. By the time the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was signed, California already had a substantial number of limited-access highways. This illustrates California’s historic role as a leader and innovator in the construction of highways and roads1.

To support the state’s substantial growth and development, construction aggregate production increased throughout the state and continues to be the backbone for California’s development. In 2013, the state’s non-fuel mineral production was valued at $3.3 billion. Construction aggregate (i.e., sand, gravel and crushed stone) was the leading mineral produced in the state. It was valued at $1.2 billion, or 37% of the total non-fuel mineral production. Construction aggregates were more valuable than the production of boron, diatomite, lime, feldspar, gypsum, rare earth elements, salt, silver, soda ash, and sodium sulfite combined; together, all of those non-construction aggregate minerals were valued at $1,098 million. Additionally, California is second in the nation in the production of construction sand and gravel2; Texas is the largest producer.

Construction aggregates are essential to California’s economy; however, according to a publication in 2012 by the California Geological Survey entitled “Aggregate Sustainability in California,” nearly all areas in the state have less permitted aggregate reserves than they are projected to need for the next 50-years. Additionally, most areas have only 11 to 20 years of permitted aggregate reserves remaining. Permitted construction aggregate shortages exist in all areas of the state.

The production and conservation of minerals is encouraged in the California Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) because their value to the state’s economy is essential. However, this aspect of SMARA has been given little attention and has not been enforced. Historically, aggregates have been produced in close proximity to their area of consumption. But, as existing permitted sites have become depleted and permitting of new operations has become more difficult, fewer production sites have been the result. Additionally, areas containing aggregate reserves have been sterilized by competing land uses. This has resulted in fewer production sites, increased truck traffic, green house gas emissions, fuel consumption and costs. Ignoring SMARA’s support for continued mineral resource production and conservation of resources has resulted in a greater risk to public health and safety; however, recent proposals to modernize SMARA do not even address the need for resource conservation and the problems associated with shortages.

Mining has been at the core of California’s economic miracle. On a scale of economic facilitators, only water is more important to an economy than construction aggregate. The production and conservation of minerals is encouraged by the legislature in SMARA because it recognizes the value of mining to the state’s economy. Mineral resource extraction ensures California is able to build and maintain our infrastructure, schools, hospitals, houses and transportation systems. It is essential that these resources are supplied locally to reduce cost and environmental impacts. As this industry is faced with increased regulation through SMARA modernization or reforms, we should be mindful of how that will affect our ability to grow and compete in a global market. Access to mineral resources should be a necessary element of any proposal.

Crystal Howard is an economist and market analyst for EnviroMINE, Inc.

2 Clinkenbeard, John. “California Non-Fuel Mineral 2013″ California Geological Survey