Labor Day nightmare

The annual rite of passage is approaching. Can the Sacramento River handle it?

Photo By Tom Angel

Here it comes again: the annual Labor Day weekend party that kicks off the school year with a giant, sloppy, dangerous, destructive, beer-and-urine-soaked belly flop of horny excess.

Thousands of inner-tubers virtually obscure the surface of the Sacramento River for three days, turning the majestic natural resource into a stream of trash that volunteers and taxpayer-funded agencies are left to clean up.

There are two sides to the story. On one side are thousands of people making a huge, dangerous mess of themselves and the environment. On the other, a much smaller group—police and the fire department as well as city, county, state, community and university organizations—trying to protect the environment from the crush of revelers and the revelers from themselves.

This isn’t a case of the man putting his foot down on the collective head of the kids who just want to have a little fun. The annual tubing event is a sustained activity that threatens the environment, homes and businesses along the river and the lives of those participating (not to mention those driving on the roads heading in and out of the area), and forces an absurd amount of mental and physical energy to be devoted to one weekend out of the year.

Some of members of those agencies complain privately that the state Department of Fish and Game, the agency entrusted with protecting the river, ironically does little if anything during this most destructive weekend. The people I spoke to at the state and regional offices didn’t know there was anything going on that weekend

TROUBLED WATER <br>Many of the rafts, coolers and other play equipment (from last year’s Labor Day festivities) were left for dead, piled high along the shore with the rest of the garbage.

Photo By Tom Angel

“Yeah, we get business … all the business in the world isn’t worth what we have to go through.” This comes from a man who knows more about the ramifications of this celebration than anyone, the owner/manager of Scotty’s Landing, John Scott. Scotty’s is in the eye of the storm.

He’d rather be enjoying the river and focusing on switching his intricate satellite system over to Direct TV. But Scott’s memory of the impeding crunch of humanity makes him focus his energies elsewhere for now.

“I spend probably $5,000 to protect myself,” Scott estimated, “[Extra] staffing, a lot of security. We bring in port-a-potties, Dumpsters.”

While concrete figures are impossible to come by, it’s estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 people will make their way to this part of the river over the course of the three-day weekend, effectively diminishing the fun that might’ve been had with a leisurely two-hour float down the river.

Scotty’s does try to provide respite from the chaos—it’ll have a reggae band (to mellow the crowd) and won’t allow inebriated people into the eatery—but the business is nonetheless vulnerable.

“We provide a safe atmosphere,” Scott said. “A couple years ago, they were kicking out the windows [to get into the bar], but 99.9 percent are honest, good American citizens.”

Courtesy Of Carolyn Pickard/Chico Police Dept

Janet Marshall of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is the spokesperson for the Labor Day Sacramento River Task Force, and she remembers a different era of summer’s-end celebration.

“I was a tuber … [There were] about 5,000 people then,” recalled the affable Marshall.

There was a different climate seven or eight years ago, she said; the “rite of passage” was fun and fairly safe.

“In the past couple of years, it’s no longer the case.” she lamented, “[Now] there’s a pack mentality—unrest.”

While doing search-and-rescue for the event, she said, Marshall has seen a depressing deterioration in participants’ behavior.

“Urinating, defecating in the open, guys cruising for drunk girls, people who can barely walk. Three or four years ago, I was coming in on a Wave Runner, I looked down, a girl covered in mud was against a tube and a guy was right there on top of her going for it.”

CALM BEFORE THE STORM <br>Scotty’s Landing owner John Scott stands ready for the crush.

Photo By Tom Angel

Obviously, alcohol is a huge part of the problem, and while there will be strict guidelines regarding public intoxication and the presence of glass containers, Marshall said that next year’s activities will be more restricted.

“There’s a relatively new law that allows law enforcement to prohibit alcohol in wilderness areas,” she explained, and since the river qualifies as wilderness, next year “alcohol enforcement” will be much more stringent.

The Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center at Chico State is bringing a far more proactive mindset this year than campus organizations have in the past with the protection of students and the river. Aided by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, CADEC has launched an education campaign focused on respect. Billboards along Nord Avenue, and bookmarks and window shades passed out during the first week of classes all bear the message, “Respect the River, Respect the Road, Respect Yourself!”

“We’ll have a booth in the Free Speech Area [at Chico State],” said Rebecca Berner, CADEC program coordinator. In addition to the “Respect” paraphernalia CADEC will pass out sunscreen and water bottles with ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ messages. CADEC will also hand out the goods at DUI checkpoints set up by the California Highway Patrol.

CADEC is using the University Life course that introduces freshmen to college living to deliver the message that the Labor Day celebration is not as much fun as it sounds.

Martin Roland, the Assistant Coordinator for Adventure Outings, will head up a crew of volunteers for river float the Saturday after the big weekend and he views staying away from the river that weekend as the best solution.

ABANDONED, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN <br>Some of the miles of debris left on the banks of the Sacramento River last Labor Day.

Courtesy Of Carolyn Pickard/Chico Police Dept

“CADEC is trying to get the message out there… go another day!” he said. “It’s not a fun time … talk to people. [It] seems like a harmless section of river but it’s somewhat on the dangerous side.”

As the Labor Day weekend approaches, the roads leading to the river are getting prepped for a last-minute resurfacing; the Chico Police Department is getting mounted patrol horses acclimated to the area for patrol; and the CADEC offices are buzzing with volunteers getting the goods ready for their information campaign. The whole venture requires so much cooperation the task force began coordinating last fall.

“If you saw it you would just freak,” said Scotty’s owner John Scott. “It takes three months to clean it up.”

The trash—"rubber rafts, vinyl rafts are the worst"—floats about 50 miles down the river, he said, and during flood time it washes up into the fields.

"[There are] too many people everywhere.”

Why doesn’t someone try to put a stop to it?

“There are too many access points,” Scott pointed out. “It’s the Sacramento River. Actually, this is the safest part of the river—they’d move from a safe to a dangerous part of the river.”

Trying to convince people to not give in to the tradition and go tubing at another time is going to be difficult. One solution would be to make it a less-attractive adventure by offering more attractive alternatives.

“I don’t see there’s a way to stop it,” said Barbara Kopicki, coordinator of Associated Students Recycling. But she does think that promoting “alternative events” is a step in the right direction.

“Maybe a concert at the fairgrounds—somewhere away from the water."