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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Taking back the rivers for families, safety

Sunday, May 27, 2007

SIKESTON -- Large groups of people partying, blaring music and downing Jell-O shots and large quantities of beer has been a typical scene on the Current and Jacks Fork rivers on Saturdays during June and July.

But that won't be so this year.

On May 5, several new regulations went into effect by the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, primarily aimed at making the rivers it controls more orderly and family-friendly. Everyone within 50 feet of the waterways -- campers, floaters, and those in boats and canoes -- is subject to the rules.

"During the '90s, we lost control of the rivers," said Noel Poe, superintendent. "The last four years, we have been working with the visitors that are coming here and trying to eliminate the deviant behaviors that are going on at the rivers."

And the new slew of regulations is designed to do just that.

"I've had dozens of people tell me 'I no longer bring my family, my church group, my Scout group to your river, Mr. Poe, because I don't want them to see what's going on,'" he said. "So that's why we need to do something."

Kegs, beer bongs and Jell-O shots are prohibited because they lead to drunkenness quickly, and because they make it easier for minors to consume alcohol, Poe said. It is also recommended adults drink no more than six beers -- or their equivalent -- per day, although officials won't be counting or checking coolers. Alcohol has not been banned on any waterways, Poe stressed.

That's a point causing some confusion among river-goers, said Jack Peters, owner of the outfitter Running River, located near Timber on the upper Current. "We've been getting several inquiries as to how it's going to be enforced and whether alcohol is being eliminated from the river," he said. Some other regulations also went into effect to help reclaim the rivers.

Music isn't allowed to be played at volumes above 80 decibels. Audio meters that measure decibel readings have been purchased and will be carried by park rangers. "Loud music distracts from the experienced other visitors are having in the park," Poe said.

Poe gave this rule of thumb to determine whether music is too loud: as long as everyone in your immediate group can hear the music but still converse with one another, it's probably OK. "If you have to yell to have a friend hear you, then it is definitely too loud," he said.

Cliff jumping/diving and rope swings are prohibited as a safety issue. "These rivers are really shallow," Poe said. "Accidents happen every year, and there have also been some unfortunate deaths."

Park staff have cut down on the distribution of Mardi Gras beads and the behavior that solicits them for the past two years and will continue that effort, Poe said.

A ban on Styrofoam coolers also went into effect, but for aesthetic reasons. The cheaply constructed devices often break and the remnants are found in the river, Poe said.

Park staff will be primarily responsible for enforcing the rules. However, they are assisted by the Missouri Water Patrol, the Department of Conservation and the Highway Patrol and country sheriff's offices. Fine amounts range between $50 and $525, according to Poe.

These regulations are similar to those made in other rivers and national parks within the last decade. "Other parks had the resources and staff available in the '90s to enforce similar rules," Poe said. "They dealt with it earlier."

That's the case at Wappapello Lake. "Ten or so years ago, we had problems with parties getting out of hand," said Dan Camden, park manager. Regulations have since cut down problems.

There are several areas where alcohol is prohibited. Due to high water levels, only one beach -- Rockwood Point -- will be open this weekend. Alcohol is permitted there, and Camden warned there will be heavy law enforcement presence over the weekend.

Peters, who has run his business since 1979, said he is in favor of the regulations. "The abuse of alcohol had an adverse effect on the families use and enjoyment of the river," he said.

Poe agreed, and said support from canoe outfitters has been broad. "We want people to come to the river and enjoy the park and we want them to have fun in this pristine environment," he said.

Peters said the problems have gradually developed since then. "Something had to be done," he said. "Whether this is going to be enough or not remains to be seen."

The following regulations are set for those on, or within 50 feet of, waterways included in the Current and Jacks Fork rivers:

* All sizes of beer kegs are banned.

* All types of beer bongs and other volume drinking devices are banned.

* Jell-O shots and similar alcohol/gelatin mixtures are banned.

* Mardi Gras beads are allowed. However, behavior soliciting them is banned.

* Music playing above 80 decibels is banned.

* Air horns are banned.

* There is a prohibition from jumping and climbing cliffs and using rope swings.

* There are no restrictions on the amount of alcohol individuals can bring or consume. However, it is recommended people consume no more than the equivalent of six alcoholic beverages.

* Those floating in canoes and rafts are recommended to bring a cooler no larger than 48 quarts, unless the plan to camp along the river.

* Styrofoam coolers are prohibited, as they frequently break and litter the environment.