Future of the float

Local supervisors poised to decide if Labor Day on the river should be booze-free

Last year’s Labor Day float attracted hordes of partiers to the Sacramento River.

Last year’s Labor Day float attracted hordes of partiers to the Sacramento River.

Photo By Tyler Harbaugh

Weigh in:
The Butte County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss banning alcohol on the Sacramento River for the Labor Day holiday at its next meeting on Tuesday (Aug. 23) in Oroville.

Every year at this time, thousands of college students flock to the Sacramento River to cool down, especially on Labor Day weekend. But that could change this year, depending on what Butte and Glenn county supervisors finalize at upcoming meetings.

If they adopt ordinances prohibiting alcohol, last year’s Labor Day crowd may have been the last flotilla of its kind.

On Tuesday (Aug. 16), the Glenn County Board of Supervisors discussed an emergency ordinance targeted solely at this upcoming Labor Day float. The supervisors are still working on a long-term solution for next year’s summer holidays.

Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones and Chico police Chief Mike Maloney spoke at the Willows meeting on the necessity of the ordinance due to a lack of law enforcement on the river. They cited past examples of violence, including sexual assaults, as well as emergency rooms overflowing with drunken students. Both men stressed that the goal is not to issue citations, but rather to use the ordinance as a tool to keep the event controllable.

But it may not be as simple as it sounds. Glenn Supervisor Dwight Foltz voiced concern that the ordinance may end up pushing students to other dangerous areas, causing more of a safety hazard.

“I’m not sure that this is the answer for a long-term solution,” Foltz said.

He’s not the only one with such worries.

In a recent phone interview, John Scott, longtime owner of popular boat launch and Sacramento River bar/restaurant Scotty’s Landing, also said he thinks the crackdown will simply move the annual celebration elsewhere.

“They’re going to chase people to other creeks,” he said. “They spent 30 years trying to make this section of river an easy place to enjoy and monitor, and now they’re going to push everyone away and make it more of a hassle to enforce.”

Scotty’s Landing is a popular spot for locals, but it also serves as the main exit point for tubers all summer long. One of Scott’s fears is that the students will put in at a more secluded or dangerous area.

“There are already kids trying to find new avenues to float,” he said. “There’s people floating from Woodson Bridge down to Gianella Bridge and getting stuck in the river at night.”

Because the river is property of the state, local public-safety agencies have had no way of keeping alcohol off the waterway. But that changed this year, thanks to a bill introduced by Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Linda) back in February that would allow local governments to enforce a prohibition on a portion of the river during summer holiday periods—namely Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 494 into law on Aug. 1, so now it’s up to Butte and Glenn supervisors to tackle the issue.

At their meeting Tuesday, the Glenn County supervisors moved to bring the issue back on Aug. 30 for a public hearing. The Butte County Board of Supervisors will take up the issue at its next meeting, on Tuesday (Aug. 23). If they choose to ban booze on Labor Day, Chico police will work alongside other authorities to publicize the new rule immediately.

Local law-enforcement agencies have been working for years on a way to crack down on the annual event, during which thousands of people barrage the river armed with copious amounts of beer, inner tubes, small rafts and anything else that floats. Altogether, 20 different government agencies take some responsibility and jurisdiction for the area, Maloney said in a recent phone interview.

Last year, for example, the Glenn County Sheriff’s Department took responsibility for “Beer Can Beach”—a notorious party area used as a stopover along the floating route—after determining the piece of west-river shoreline falls within its county lines. Since alcohol wasn’t prohibited at that time, the agency simply monitored activity there.

Attendance during the tradition has ebbed and flowed, but officials say the past few years have seen growth. Maloney noted that the event magnifies the problems for the Chico Police Department, due to the float-related activities, mainly parties and drinking, that go on in town throughout the holiday weekends.

“It’s become a regional problem where one day of floating amounts to four days of kids partying in town,” he said.

Maloney insists that authorities are attempting to transform the holiday into a more local celebration, not to eliminate it entirely. He said more than 50 percent of the people his department deals with are out-of-towners.

“I’ve seen people [from] as far as New York, Pennsylvania and Australia come here for this event,” said Maloney, who spoke in favor of AB 494 at the State Capitol while it was winding its way through the Legislature.

The law is modeled after similar legislation governing portions of the American and Truckee rivers that have experienced problems due to alcohol consumption. Locally, the enforcement area includes the stretch between the Gianella Bridge at the Irvine Finch Recreation Area near Hamilton City southward to the region near Scotty’s Landing. In other words, it covers the entire length of the annual float’s traditional route.

Although this bill was meant to contain the giant float, some say it may also push ashore anglers and other non-student river enthusiasts who like to enjoy an occasional cold one on a holiday weekend.

Scott said word is spreading quickly about the law, and many people he knows have become irate. He said the general public has not had a chance to weigh in and predicts the community is going to put up strong opposition to the ban.

He acknowledged he will lose customers if the ban gets the green light, and said the authorities don’t realize how much money the city of Chico stands to lose by deterring summer holiday visitors. The problems associated with the celebrations each year are not significant enough to take such measures, he added.

“If one in every hundred people is causing problems on these big weekends, then they should arrest them, but not punish the general public for it,” he summed up.

As for the students, the main target of the law, it’s too soon to know how they will react.

Jordan Carroll, a Chico State business major who regularly enjoys the float, said he’s skeptical about the ability of the authorities to enforce the ban. He said participants may simply drink heavily before heading out to the river or attempt to conceal containers.

“One of the fun parts of the river experience is being able to drink on the river with your friends,” he said.