Police will be on the water in force this weekend looking for drunken boaters

Drunken boaters across the country may find themselves finishing the weekend in a jail cell this week under a nationwide push to enforce sober-boating laws.

Marine patrols will be out in force Friday through Sunday in all 50 states during an effort dubbed Operation Dry Water.

In Oregon, the effort is a joint program of the Oregon State Marine Board, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, the U.S. Coast Guard and local county marine patrols.

It comes on the heels of a Coast Guard study from 2007 statistics showing that 21 percent of all boating fatalities were the result of alcohol use, according to the Marine Board.

Though alcohol historically has been common aboard boats of all sizes, the boating community over time has soured on those who over-do it and risk injuries to themselves and others.

"It's become less and less socially acceptable to be drunk on the water," says Sgt. Tom Turk of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department marine patrol.

Marine deputies will be joined by troopers from the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division in checking boaters on most Jackson County waterways this weekend, Turk says.

Under Oregon law, boat operators are allowed to drink alcohol and possess open containers on boats. However, boat operators cannot be under the influence — meaning their blood-alcohol level cannot be above the same .08 percent threshold for drunken driving. Also, those with a lower blood-alcohol level face arrest if they are impaired.

"Take a beer or two, but don't take 20," Turk says. "We try to preach moderation."

In 2006, marine deputies logged 57 arrests for boating under the influence of alcohol, or BUII. In 2008, arrest numbers dropped to 17 and deputies have logged no BUII arrests so far this season, Turk says.

BUII arrests peaked in 2000 with 254 arrests, but they have dropped consistently statewide.

"We think because we're being more visible about it that the stats are going down," Turk says.

Rafting liveries in Shady Cove and other parts of the raft-rich upper Rogue River have seen the trend, as well.

Carolee Enriquez of the Rogue Rafting Co. has rented rafts to weekend boaters for 30 years.

"It was totally out of control on the river," Enriquez says. "It was tough getting drunk guys off the boat ramps. And what's worse is, they got in their cars and drove away."

BUII enforcement — as well as liveries posting BUII information and informing renters of the rules — has helped curb much of that abuse, Enriquez says.

"Their presence is good," she says. "It has made everybody aware."

Those who run afoul of BUII laws face sobering fines.

In Jackson County, all BUII suspects are cited for Class A misdemeanors, Turk says. The Jackson County District Attorney's Office has the option of reducing it to a violation, but that typically is reserved for rafters and rarely for powerboaters, he says.

"There's a lot more that can go wrong with a powerboat," Turk says. "It's a different kind of danger."

A Class A misdemeanor can lead to punishments as high as a year in jail, a $6,250 fine and a loss of boating privileges, according to the Marine Board.

Turk says most first-timers end up with fines around $500.

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