Farewell to the float?

Public-safety officials vow to keep lobbying for Sacramento River alcohol ban

About 165 public-safety personnel were involved in the coordinated monitoring of this year’s Sacramento River float. Most of the action took place in the area near Beer Can Beach.

About 165 public-safety personnel were involved in the coordinated monitoring of this year’s Sacramento River float. Most of the action took place in the area near Beer Can Beach.

Photo By Howard Hardee

Check out the Chico Police Department's Labor Day arrest stats at http://tinyurl.com/labordaychico

Standing ankle-deep in water and slightly hunched over, a young man and woman held hands, dry heaving in unison at the edge of a veritable city of inebriates on a sandbar in the Sacramento River. In front of them, a scantily clad throng moved to the sounds of a DJ spinning generic hip-hop. Plumes of smoke rose from the masses, as inner tubes flew back and forth like beach balls.

This blatant display of college partying would have been out of place if this wasn’t the Sacramento River’s infamous Beer Can Beach on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. This massive party of more than 11,000 people was actually considered a low turnout, with 4,000 fewer people entering the water than last year.

Yet, despite the reduced numbers, this holiday’s float may go down as the last of its kind. If local law-enforcement officials have their way, it will have been the last one involving alcohol.

“Despite the scaling down of the event, we continue to have concerns about the regional economic and environmental impacts of the float,” Chico Police Chief Mike Maloney told this reporter Tuesday morning following a press conference at the Chico Police Department. “Glenn County’s Board of Supervisors does not currently share that concern. Ultimately, that decision has to be made on the other side of the river.”

Just days before the holiday, Glenn County’s supervisors balked at an ordinance to prohibit alcohol consumption on the traditional route of the annual flotilla. As an urgency ordinance, the proposal needed the support of four out of five county representatives. Only three gave it the green light. (Butte County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a similar ordinance a week earlier.)

But three votes will be enough to approve the ordinance going forward, so it’s a very real possibility Chico has seen the last of the booze-fueled event. And it was clear during the press conference that Maloney, one of the main supporters of the proposed ban, won’t be giving up on it anytime soon.

The chief was flanked by officers from his department, along with officials from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, California State Parks, the California Highway Patrol, Chico State’s Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center, Enloe Medical Center, Hamilton City Fire Department and Cal Fire. Each representative stressed that Chico has an alcohol problem, despite the relative calm experienced this Labor Day weekend.

Though his department conducts little enforcement at the river, Maloney must step up patrols over the weekend to deal with the increased activity within city limits. The chief decried the operating costs of managing the crowds and maintained his stance that the ban would be a step in the right direction.

Dwight Foltz, one of the Glenn supervisors who voted against the ban, stood by his position this week. Foltz thinks prohibiting alcohol would only force floaters to a more dangerous section of river. He also thinks such a proposition could get out of hand.

“Things tend to grow,” he said. “If they pass the ban, it could move to more areas, to more days. Pretty soon, you can’t have a beer anywhere on the shore of the Sacramento River.”

This year those scenarios weren’t put to the test.

On Sunday, the day that drew the most floaters, about a dozen Glenn County public-safety personnel monitored events through high-powered binoculars and telescopes from the shore opposite Beer Can Beach. From above, a black sheriff’s helicopter made repeated passes over the river, also scanning the area for signs of violence and coordinating with officers on the ground, directing them to problems.

“We’re not trying to shut this thing down,” said State Parks Superintendent Michael Fehling, who was spending his 12th Labor Day weekend patrolling the river. “With this many intoxicated people you’re obviously going to get some who don’t want to behave.”

As the afternoon wore on, the combination of relentless heat and excessive alcohol consumption began to wear on some floaters. “Everybody reaches their peak alcohol level around sundown,” Fehling said. “Then some of the kids can start to get surly.”

With about 165 public-safety personnel from various agencies monitoring the river, it wasn’t too difficult to pick out the troublemakers. In one instance, the helicopter spotted three particularly violent young men near the shore who were located and detained by officers in mere moments and hauled off the river.

All told on Sunday, the authorities reported eight separate large-scale fights and 22 drunk-in-public contacts. They issued 19 littering citations and one boating-under-the-influence charge, and conducted 241 water rescues. Nine inebriated individuals were stopped before entering the water at the Irvine Finch launch area near Highway 32. (In Chico, the 93 arrests were down from last year’s four-day total of 120.)

Overall, those floaters looking for trouble were in the minority.

“The kids have been respectful; they know we’re here to help,” said Sgt. Loren Bouldin of the Glenn County Sheriff’s Office. “Our job is to make sure everyone gets off the beach by the time night falls, but there are always going to be those types of people who don’t like law enforcement.”

As the sun began to set, the departing crowds gave way to the startling wreckage left behind—a sandbar littered with empty beer boxes, cans, water bottles, deflated tubes and entire coolers.

“Beer Can Beach was probably the worst we’ve seen it in recent years,” said Travis Gee, a State Park officer. “For all intents and purposes, it was a landfill.”

Bouldin echoed him, pointing out dozens of abandoned tubes forming clusters along the riverbank. Chico State organizations and California State Parks will lead efforts to pick up the trash, including a collaborative cleanup this Saturday (Sept. 10). Last year, 40 volunteers diverted 600 pounds of recycling, recovered 30 inflatable tubes, and filled a 40-yard Dumpster with trash.

While the annual flotilla poses environmental problems, public safety remains the main concern.

Alcohol ban or not, both Maloney and Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones pledged to continue to search for a means to better manage Labor Day. Jones predicted disaster if local agencies did not cooperate during the event.

“I don’t see how there wouldn’t be deaths or serious injury without the number of personnel we had out there,” he said.