Most ideas to police the Animas sink
City councilor worries rules may be excessive
by Garrett Andrews
Herald Staff Writer
Article Last Updated; Wednesday, March 24, 2010 12:00AM
An ordinance intended to regulate use of the Animas River during the summers hit a strainer Tuesday as stakeholders met with the Durango City Council and listened as city staff explained why suppressing immature behavior on the river won't be as easy as many of them would like.
Provisions in a proposed river ordinance would have prohibited alcohol in closed containers, imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and required life jackets for recreational users. A curfew might still pass in some form, but the alcohol and flotation-device provisions likely will be scrapped because of enforcement and financial considerations.
“I believe it's excessive and would limit access to an affordable and cherished summertime activity," said Councilor Doug Lyon of the life-jacket provision Tuesday at the study session.
The ordinance comes after years of discussions between residents and the city. Since 1988, commercial-user days have increased from 12,000 to 42,000, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association, the third-highest total in Colorado. Though commercial use on the Animas has ballooned, another manner of river-going craft seems to have inflated faster and seems directly targeted by the ordinance.
Animas River guide Casey Lynch, who has guided trips on the river for 28 years, said he's seen tubing “balloon" in the last five years.
“We can't contain it as is," he said. “If it's busy, you can't get a bus in there. It's too crowded."
Now, neighbors of the 29th Street and 33rd Street put-ins complain about a wild party atmosphere that routinely carries on late into the night. Neighbors cite parking, noise, trash and bad behavior as signs things have gotten out of hand.
“(During river season) I pick up trash on my property on nearly a daily basis," said resident Tim Wolf, who one time found a syringe on his land. “It hurts to watch."
Durango police responded last year with an increased presence at the put-ins, and the city held several meetings with affected residents. But, as if to show these efforts were no magic bullet, two shirtless young men interrupted a well-attended meeting at the 33rd Street put-in to ask if anyone there wanted to purchase cans of beer.
Public consumption of alcohol is illegal on the Animas, but, as Durango Police Chief David Felice said, that's not an easy law to enforce.
“We were down there all last summer watching people with kegs over one shoulder getting into rafts, and there's nothing we can do. We saw it all day long; we can only cite once it's open," he said.
What DPD officers would occasionally do is watch for consumption from the shore, follow subjects to the take-outs and issue citations.
Felice said strict enforcement can even provide an incentive for drinkers to ditch their cans and bottles, and make collecting evidence more difficult for Felice's officers.
And the chief said that if it were possible, he would have officers in the water. But costs for certifying - and recertifying - officers to use kayaks would prove prohibitive. But he would have no trouble finding volunteers, he said.
“If I started a marine unit, they'd all want to do it," he said.
One of the most effective tactics he can employ, he said, would be “setting the tone," and feature the strictest enforcement during the first few weeks of river season.
Fort Lewis College student Stanley Michael, who heads the group Durango for Animas Freedom, urged councilors to avoid penalizing tubers if possible and to push education instead.
“I have a feeling that if we hand over our freedoms, we'll hand over our comfort," he said, adding that more arrests won't solve the alcohol problem.