Rude Tubers Causing Too Much Trouble on Comal River

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    NEWSLETTERS

    flickr/dustin larimer

    Toni Peters, whose home overlooks the Comal River near downtown, was taking her toddler grandsons for a laid-back Sunday float two weeks ago when a barrage of obscenities pierced the early morning quiet.

    She looked upstream to see a group of tubers drinking and cussing, oblivious to their surroundings as they drifted down the river.

    Another nearby tuber, eyeing Peters' grandkids, asked the loud group to tone it down.

    They responded with more obscenities.

    "They said this wasn't a family river and that I shouldn't bring kids there if I didn't like it," a stunned Peters said. "They said the kids are `going to learn those words one day anyway, so it might as well be now."'

    And with that, the tubers laughed and continued their scatological excursion downstream.

    "I was appalled," Peters said. "I can't take my own little grandchildren on the river?"

    It wasn't an isolated incident. An insurgency of chaos, led by rowdy tubers, has laid siege to the city.

    Higher gasoline prices, Mayor Gale Pospisil said, have made New Braunfels a more popular destination for cash-strapped Texans.

    But the main reason for the larger-than-usual crowds, she said, is the drought, which has rendered the nearby Guadalupe River nearly useless for tubing. That, in turn, has pushed the more raucous Guadalupe crowd onto the family-friendly, spring-fed Comal.

    Around town, tourists block private driveways; park illegally on city streets; dump litter, vomit, defecate and urinate in lawns; and leave debris and thousands of beer cans floating in the once-pristine waters.

    Two weeks ago, a drunken off-duty Marine attacked an officer and rendered him unconscious with a choke hold. It took three officers to subdue the attacker and his wife.

    "When," Peters asked rhetorically, "is enough enough?"

    The answer, it appears, is now.

    Local officials, straining under the pressure of summer crowds being called the biggest and most badly behaved in history, are cracking down.

    Last Saturday, it got so bad police took the unprecedented step of closing river access at 5 p.m., sending thousands home four hours earlier than usual. Police have used stun guns and pepper spray on drunken tubers for the first time.

    "That's never happened before," Pospisil said. "We want people to come here and have fun, but we want them to have respect for our town and our river. We're not going to tolerate rude behavior."

    This is the first summer on the job for Police Chief Tom Wibert, whose career includes a 25-year stint dealing with rowdy college students in East Lansing, Mich.

    "It takes a lot to shock me," he said. "But this summer has shocked everyone."

    Not all the tourists are bad, the chief told the City Council on Monday, but there's enough aberrant behavior to make it a community priority.

    New Braunfels normally operates with a dedicated six-officer river patrol unit augmented by six more officers on the weekends. For the three big holidays -- Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day -- the department brings in all 102 officers to handle enforcement.

    This summer, however, Wibert and 92 of his officers have worked every weekend. His overtime budget is already $65,000 higher than it was last June.

    Tens of thousands of tourists, many of them drunk by lunch, have created bank-to-bank gridlock some days on the river.

    Police activity tells the story of the summer so far. Last year at this time, New Braunfels officers had written 693 tickets and made 75 arrests for river-related infractions. This year, they've written 944 citations and arrested 171 people in the same time frame.

    Wibert said officers have been stretched to the limit. Because of crowd size, it's impossible to catch everyone breaking a law.

    "It's as if there's an unlimited amount of police work to do," he said. "It's like trying to take a drink out of a fire hose."

    When police couldn't cruise the Comal on Memorial Day, Wibert said, officers sealed off river access to create space for patrol boats to maneuver. Tubers were told to line up and wait their turn.

    Within 20 minutes, the crowd swelled to 3,000.

    The slower river flow means that a trip down the Comal, which normally takes two hours, now is a four-hour trip.

    And in a four-hour trip, Pospisil said, unruly tourists can drink twice as much beer.

    The city can't regulate alcohol consumption on the river, since it falls under state jurisdiction.

    Instead, the city has regulated containers taken to the river. Large ice chests are banned, as are glass, foam containers, beer bongs and small cups typically used for gelatin shots.

    Despite that, there's still a lot of drinking on the river.

    "The levels of intoxication on that river are staggering," said Wibert, who has gotten a firsthand glimpse during his weekend river shifts.

    River access will be regulated for the rest of the summer, Wibert said. The city will study the problems during the off-season, Pospisil said, and come back with stricter rules and better crowd control systems for 2012.

    On the short list: a fee to enter the river, on top of an existing surcharge added to the cost of rented tubes.

    That won't help Wibert and his officers as they gear up for Fourth of July, normally the busiest holiday of the year.

    "It's going to be an interesting weekend."