The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The consequences of boating with a buzz got tougher in Colorado Tuesday.
It now could be illegal to split a bottle of wine while drifting with your loved one in a canoe on a placid lake. It’s illegal to drink one too many then scream off on a jet ski. Even raft operators on a float down river must watch what they drink.
Colorado’s law on boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI) was expanded to include all “vessels” as of Aug. 5. The old law applied BUI only to operators of motor boats and sailboats. Now it affects operators of rafts, kayaks, canoes, jet skis and even paddle boats, said Brian Sandy, boating safety specialist with Colorado State Parks.
In addition, the threshold level to be considered intoxicated was lowered from a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 to 0.08, putting it in line with DUI levels for motor vehicles.
The Legislature passed the tougher BUI law last session. Gov. Bill Ritter signed the bill in April, and it went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
The wording of the bill is ambiguous about who could be held accountable in a raft or canoe. The law says it is illegal for anyone under the influence of alcohol “to operate or be in actual physical control of a vessel.” While the person at the back of the craft is often regarded as the person in control, the wording doesn’t necessarily exclude other paddlers.
“That’s something that’s going to be tested here,” Sandy predicted. There are usually test cases for new laws, he noted.
The new law applies to all waterways — rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs — across the state.
“Any officer in the state of Colorado can enforce that law,” Sandy said. “State Parks will pursue BUIs as aggressively as possible.”
The state agency’s law enforcement officers can and do patrol bodies of water that aren’t state parks, including Ruedi Reservoir east of Basalt. Ruedi is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but the federal agency doesn’t patrol the water by boat. The reservoir is located in both Eagle and Pitkin counties, but neither county sheriff’s office has water patrol.
“We have no ability to go out and patrol Ruedi,” said Pitkin County Undersheriff Joe DiSalvo. The new law won’t result in the sheriff’s office spending more time on the country’s waterways, be it in Ruedi or the Roaring Fork River, he said.
“It’s not that we don’t think it’s an issue. What are we going to do, go up and down the river in a kayak?” DiSalvo said.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service also has jurisdiction at Ruedi, but it is trading in its boat for snowmobiles, a staffer noted.
Sandy said his patrol team at Colorado State Parks typically visits Ruedi Reservoir once or twice a summer. Nothing stands out about the reservoir as far as having more or fewer infractions than encountered at other waterways in the state, he said.
The state parks’ enforcement team typically issues about 25 BUI tickets per year, Sandy said. That number could conceivably increase now that the threshold level decreased.
The agency’s website says about 1,000 people die nationwide in boating accident each year. About 50 percent of the accidents are deemed alcohol-related.
The penalties for BUI in Colorado can involve jail time, a fine or both. The sentence can range from five to 180 days in jail and a fine of between $200 and $1,000. In addition, 96 hours of community service is mandatory in most cases. A person also loses privileges to operate a boat for three months, for a first offense, and one year for a second offense.
Sandy said a BUI conviction doesn’t impact a motor vehicle license.