Down the tube

In an effort to suppress the long-held student tradition of floating drunk and en masse down the Sacramento River on Labor Day, the city of Chico is giving the holiday the Halloween treatment this year, running dozens of TV and radio ads that warn, in an austere tone voiced over ominous techno music, that “The trashing of our river and our community is over.”

To back up that statement, local law enforcement agencies are pulling out all the stops, with Chico PD, along with Butte and Glenn County sheriffs, putting their entire collective force to work over the weekend. The California Highway Patrol will also be out, setting up multiple DUI checkpoints and enforcing a five-mile no-parking zone along Highway 32 from Hamilton City to Meridian Road.

Cops will be checking IDs, enforcing an alcohol ban at Irvine Finch landing—the traditional put-in, toke-up, chug-down spot for the thousands of fun-seeking tubers that annually descend upon the river—and giving tickets to anyone caught in a boat not wearing a life vest. Inner tubes don’t count as boats.

The city hasn’t come up with a figure for what they’re spending on the Labor Day ad campaign, but Community Development director Chet Wood said it would be less than the $21,000 spent on last year’s effort to quell Halloween partying.

Chico PD’s point man on the operation, Lieutenant Mike Weber, said the scare-away campaign is needed to stop an event that, in the past few years, has become a public safety nightmare.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen the growth of Labor Day. It’s not diminishing, it’s increasing,” Weber said. “There are generally 15,000 or 20,000 people that go out Labor Day, there’s a lot of alcohol abuse, a lot of near-drownings, [and] it’s not a one-day event. Those people that come in on Labor Day are generally here on Friday, Saturday, Sunday as well. For the city of Chico it’s essentially a four-day weekend.”

That costs plenty in police, sheriff and search-and-rescue overtime and leaves those agencies over-extended for the entire weekend, he said. While there had been some talk of putting together some sort of alternative event—such as a concert—in the area to draw party people away from the river, Weber indicated that idea had little support from Chico Police, as it might just create another set of problems.

No one we spoke to at the city or the police department had any figures as to how much the annual float supposedly costs the area. However, there were 173 adult arrests last Labor Day weekend, twice as many as in the same period the week before. That number was actually down from the previous year, when there 232 arrests.

Glenn County Sheriff’s Division Commander Phil Revolinsky said in his 27 years patrolling the river, the Labor Day float has definitely gotten more popular and more dangerous.

“There have been two or three kids lost over the past three decades,” he said. “They tend to get snagged on trees in the river and get caught and pulled under.”

No one has drowned in recent memory, but last year three teenagers died in an alcohol-related car crash after a day of tubing, and there were 100 major rescues, requiring 18 hospitalizations.

This year, the main effort will be focused on Labor Day itself, but Weber also cautioned against tubing on Saturday and Sunday, when there will be fewer search and rescue personnel to assist those who get in trouble.