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Colorado water cops will be on the lookout for drunken boaters over Fourth of July weekend

Sun exposure, dehydration, “vacation brain” can turn a couple of drinks into a costly BUI, Colorado park rangers warn

Boats sit in the dock at Lake Fork on Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Bob Worthman enjoys morning coffee runs on Jackson Lake with his wife, but back when he was younger, he and his buddies were probably drinking beer. 

It is a mellower time for Worthman, 63. He still loves the water as much as he did when he was growing up on Long Island, but he won’t be out this July 4 and the long holiday weekend, with “all those darn people,” he growls. He lives so close to Jackson that morning coffee runs are just a couple minutes away. He has the luxury of boating when the crowds are gone. 

But the thousands who will descend on Jackson Lake State Park east of Greeley — and hundreds of other places in Colorado — to spend the holiday on the water aren’t as fortunate. 

That’s why the water cops will be out in force.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the rangers of Jackson Lake in Orchard, will join Operation Dry Water, a national campaign to deter boaters from consuming alcohol or partaking in marijuana while operating any kind of watercraft, including kayaks, canoes or Jet Skis.

Call *CSP (*277) if you see a suspicious boat operator this weekend.

The patrols will be busiest from July 5-7, but you can expect a heavy presence on July 4 as well. 

It’s a different era for Worthman, who admits he consumed his fair share of alcohol on the water back in the day. “Everyone was drinking on the water, and it didn’t matter, they wouldn’t bother you. But you get older and wiser.”

Indeed, as the decades since Worthman was young, law enforcement and boaters alike began to recognize that alcohol and drug use was the No. 1 contributor to watercraft crashes. It remains so. 

This year, staying sober on the water might be especially important. Already at least 10 people have died on Colorado’s waterways during what’s been an especially intense runoff season. While alcohol hasn’t been implicated in any of the fatalities, authorities are urging people to be extra careful when out enjoying Colorado’s streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

Boaters on Jackson Lake east of Greeley. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is participating in Operation Dry Water over the long July 4 holiday weekend, hoping to discourage people from consuming alcohol and marijuana while piloting watercraft. (Karen Harris, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Busiest weekend on the water

July 4 and the weekend that follows draw the highest boating traffic of the summer, said Yvonne Pentz, spokeswoman for the National Safe Boating Council, an organization that does exactly what you’d expect from the name. 

The organization’s top priority is getting people to wear life jackets — it’s just like putting on a seat belt, Pentz said — but persuading boaters to lay off the inebriants isn’t far behind, especially in recent years. 

But boaters still don’t consider driving a boat while drunk or high the same as driving a car under the influence, even if the law does. In Colorado, the blood-alcohol content level at which someone is considered impaired is the same on the road or on the water — 0.08 — and carries the same penalties. 

“I hate to say this, but I think boaters in particular get vacation brain,” Pentz said. “They’re not using common sense. We can share the dangers all day, but in their mind, if the waters aren’t congested, well, hey….”

Yet boating drunk, or high (and yes, officials have seen an increase of pot use among boaters since it became legal) remains the No. 1 contributing factor for boating crashes, according to the Coast Guard. In 2017, the latest numbers available (the most recent will be released in a week), nearly 20 percent of all water deaths, including drowning, were related to drug or alcohol use. 

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It’s much easier to get yourself, um, impaired on the water than many boaters realize, Jackson Lake State Park manager Tyler Seward said. In 2018, 494 impaired boating drivers were removed by law enforcement across the country during the three-day Operation Dry Water weekend. CPW has cited 106 people for Boating Under the Influence, or BUIs, in the past 10 years and 620 people for Driving Under the Influence on land. 

“You’re in the heat, so you’re already dehydrated,” Seward said. “You start drinking, and it exacerbates the problem. I don’t think people have the intention of boating drunk, but before you know it, you’re in trouble. The drinks you have on land aren’t equal to what you have on the water.”

Boating is also in many ways more confusing than driving a car, especially for all the weekenders who may take their boat out only a few times a year. Bad weather, the wind and the waves all make it harder to navigate, and it’s not like there are any turn lanes. 

“When there is an accident, it tends to be really serious,” Seward said. “You don’t really have fender benders on the water.”

Seward wanted his park to be featured in Operation Dry Water, although all state parks, reservoirs and wildlife areas will take part, because he calls Jackson a “party park,” though not derisively. Some state parks were created for habitat and others for recreation, he said, and Jackson Lake was created mostly for recreation, even if it’s cited by many as a great place to watch birds. 

“Our people are looking to recreate,” Seward said. “They camp, boat and maybe fish.” 

That means more drinking than some other places, but Seward sees things changing from the old days. He hopes the campaign helps make his regulars at Jackson more willing to report problems as well. 

“The one thing it does is let others be more vigilant as well,” Seward said. “A lot of problems get reported by boaters. We can’t be on the water as much as them. So that’s really important.” 

When boaters do want to report problems, they should call law enforcement, not the parks office, because those calls get dispatched to rangers, including Seward. An easy number to remember is *CSP.

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

A BUI can be as costly as a DUI

Other than getting older and wiser, Worthman said he learned to stop drinking and boating after seeing his friends catch citations for DUIs and the so-called BUIs, or boating under the influence, which cost them thousands in court costs, fines, lawyers, classes and other expenses. 

“It’s a pain,” Worthman said. “It’s even hard to get a job with that.”

Even though it feels as if more boaters are taking the law seriously, as the number of BUIs edge down, more drivers and boaters are using pot. Pot is legal in Colorado, but it’s not legal in a public place, and parks count as public places, said Jim Hawkins, boating safety and enforcement coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

“We’ve seen an increase in people trying to boat responsibly,” Hawkins said, “but with the people we are arresting, we are seeing more drug use than we were seeing before pot became legal.”

During the enforcement campaign, rangers and officers will contact boaters for violations, just as street cops do when you’re driving, such as an expired registration or passengers 13 and under not wearing a life jacket, and it will go from there.

“We do try our best because if we don’t catch them on the water, we know they will drive home with a boat and trailer attached,” Hawkins said. 

Saturation, both in patrols and education, has helped since 2009, when Hawkins was the senior ranger at Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, another “party park” at the time that has mellowed some. 

“We worked there through the years, and people would see others getting arrested,” Hawkins said. “It finally started to set in.”

Hawkins and other officers may talk to people heading out on their boat as well, although mostly it’s just to remind them to wear life jackets rather than talk to them about alcohol. 

“But if we see them carrying three coolers full of booze,” Hawkins said with a chuckle, “we’ll probably talk to them.”


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