No beer at Beer Can Beach?

County wants to ban alcohol on Labor Day river float

Law-enforcement officers made 124 arrests last Labor Day weekend, including this man at Beer Can Beach.

Law-enforcement officers made 124 arrests last Labor Day weekend, including this man at Beer Can Beach.

Photo By Tyler harbaugh

If all goes as planned, next Labor Day there will be no beer at Beer Can Beach.

That was the message delivered Tuesday (Feb. 8) not only at the county Board of Supervisors meeting that morning, but also at the Chico City Council meeting that night. Both panels were asked to pass a resolution calling on state legislators to implement a ban on alcohol on a section of the river over the Labor Day weekend.

Their goal is to put a damper on the traditional end-of-summer Sacramento River float, which last year drew 15,000 often inebriated revelers.

As Chico Chief of Police Mike Maloney told the supervisors, “It’s only because of a miracle that we’ve avoided a death out there.”

As it is, the unsanctioned and unsponsored event requires a major response from not only law enforcement, including Highway Patrol officers in addition to sheriff’s deputies and Chico police officers, but also state parks personnel and first responders. The cost is significant—“tens of thousands of dollars,” as Maloney put it, referring only to Chico police expenses—and in this age of reduced budgets no longer affordable.

Every year there are as many as 100 “critical rescues” over the weekend that have the potential to become fatal, and anywhere from 200-300 bookings for a variety of offenses ranging from sexual assault and battery to drunken driving.

Then there’s the damage to the river, in the form of bodily waste and litter, including thousands of beer cans and numerous abandoned tubes and rafts.

“We can’t manage this any longer,” Sheriff Jerry Smith told the supervisors. “Actually, we never could manage it, but we provided the management we could.”

Local officials would immediately institute the ban if they were able. The problem is that, while the counties have authority over the river’s banks, the state is in charge of the river itself, so both state legislation and local ordinances are needed to place a ban on portions of the river. The ban would apply to a 5.6-mile stretch from Highway 32 south to Channel Slough.

Similar bans already are in place on sections of the American River in Sacramento County and the Truckee River in Placer County. And Butte County has banned alcohol on Butte Creek, as Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi noted.

“Since we put in that ban,” he said, “residents along the creek have been telling us that families are back on the creek. The ruffians and hooligans are gone.”

The current effort is the product of a December meeting at which all involved parties, from the Glenn County Sheriff’s Office to the Chico PD and first responders, agreed to collaborate.

Maloney and Smith said they are working with Assemblyman Dan Logue’s office to come up with legislation, but there’s a reluctance in Sacramento to add regulations of any kind, so they have to make a strong case. That’s why they were seeking a resolution of support from the supervisors.

For Maloney, it’s not just the Labor Day float that’s at issue. The float, he said, is just the culminating event in what amounts to four days of mass partying that sucks up the time and energy of his officers. He figures that if they can make the float less attractive, they tamp down the entire weekend.

“We’re not trying to kill the event,” he said. “We realize that being in the river is part of the college experience.” People will still be able to float the river with alcoholic beverages on other weekends.

Although the city’s resolution speaks of banning alcohol on several weekends, including Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, the immediate goal is to obtain legislation specific to Labor Day, which draws the biggest crowds of the year.

Only one person, other than Maloney and Smith, commented on the resolution before the supervisors. He was Jim Clarkson, who owns Raptor Rod Works in Chico and has been active on the issue for several years. His argument was that there were already regulations in place controlling littering and the wearing of personal floatation devices, or life vests, and that if they were enforced the problem could be solved.

“I don’t like new rules, either, but I think this one is necessary,” Supervisor Maureen Kirk said, moving to approve the resolution. It passed unanimously.

After the meeting, Maloney responded to Clarkson’s comments by noting that littering was hard to prove. “The officer has to actually see someone littering to issue a ticket,” he said. And the PFD regulations, he added, didn’t apply to the kinds of rafts being used on the river.

The City Council passed its resolution 6-1, with Councilman Scott Gruendl dissenting. He said the common response he’s heard from the public is that sufficient regulations already existed to control the situation.