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Glenn County officials prep for Labor Day
There have been times over the years that Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones wished he could post a sign at the Sacramento River access at Irvine Finch Park in Hamilton City that says, "Enter at your own risk; no lifeguard on duty."
It would save the county and many other law enforcement agencies involved in search and rescue efforts each Labor Day weekend hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Unfortunately, we can't do that," Jones said Monday, at a multi-agency press conference to prepare for this weekend's big float. "We have an obligation, and that is to keep people safe."
On Sunday, up to 10,000 young people — mostly college students from California State University, Chico, and around the state — will enter the river with tubes and rafts in order to float the 1.5 miles from Irvine Finch to the popular party spot along the river known as Beer Can Beach near Scotty's Landing.
For the dozens of agencies involved, including the Glenn and Butte County sheriff's offices, California State Parks and Hamilton City Fire Department and Search and Rescue, the focus this year will be on the new "no-tolerance" ban on alcohol that went into effect in April.
The ban was approved when the Glenn County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to enforce a special law approved by the Legislature that allows the banning of alcohol during special events and holidays.
Agents from the Alcoholic Beverage Control, California Fish and Wildlife and the California Highway Patrol will also assist at or near the river to enforce the ban, officials said.
The Butte County Board of Supervisors initially approved the ban two years ago, but Glenn County agreed only after 20-year-old Brett Olson, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo student, slipped unnoticed below the surface of the water near Bear Can Beach last September and drowned.
His body was discovered by a fisherman one week later.
An autopsy confirmed that Olson was highly intoxicated and had consumed cocaine shortly before his death.
Alcohol is the primary law enforcement concern on the river, Jones said, and one that should have been addressed years ago.
The Labor Day float for the past two decades has become synonymous with drunkenness, Jones said, and has resulted in the countless rescue of young people from the water.
"This river is dangerous and alcohol only adds to it," Jones said. "When you come here you risk those dangers."
The alcohol ban applies to the segment of the river from Highway 32 to the mouth of Big Chico Creek, said California State Parks Lt. Kirk Coon, incident commander.
This year, people will not be allowed to consume or have open containers within 50 feet of any water, or are they allowed to consume alcohol in Irvine Finch, which is a state park, Coon said.
Possession of alcohol in the water is also prohibited.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said law enforcement agencies are taking the ban seriously.
People showing up already drunk will be arrested and people with alcohol on them will be asked to dump it or return it to a vehicle.
People will also be cited if they attempt to get around law enforcement officers by failing to provide identification or giving a false name, Ramsey said.
"We will take your thumb print," he said.
Even with an alcohol ban, law enforcement agencies will continue to have a strong presence on the Sacramento River the day of the float.
Boats and personal watercraft from Glenn and Butte counties sheriff's offices and search and rescue teams from other agencies will be on the water to assist in need.
Last year, a law enforcement officer nearly drowned when he tried to cut loose a person who was caught in a snag, official said.
Glenn County Boat Patrol officer, Deputy Heath Rasmussen said the hydrostatic pressure of the water in the Sacramento River makes rafting and tubing very dangerous.
"It's very easy to get pulled under," he said.
On typical weekends, Rasmussen and Butte County Boat Patrol officer, Deputy Jay Waananen, routinely patrol the waters.
This weekend, they will be joined by about 100 emergency personnel, Rasmussen said.
Although Coon said he hopes the alcohol ban will keep some people off the river, he still expects plenty to be on the water Labor Day weekend.
"We want them to have fun, but we want them to be safe," Coon said. "You don't necessarily have to drink to have fun. If you get drunk and stupid, it is even more dangerous."
For those looking for alternatives to the float, Chico State's Campus Alcohol Drug Education Center will be organizing numerous events that will take place from morning to night on Labor Day weekend, beginning Thursday.
"There is literally something to do at all times," said Trisha Seastrom, project director with the Education Center.
There is also an active campaign through email and social media reminding students to be safe and notify them of the alcohol ban, she said.
CONTACT Susan Meeker at 934-6800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.