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Senate passes bill to promote river safety

Photo by: Daryl Ontiveros | Staff Photographer
Tubers float the San Marcos River May 19 through Rio Vista Park.

The Texas Senate approved a bill May 12 designed to improve safety and enjoyment on the San Marcos River.

Senate Bill 234 (SB 234), authored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, includes provisions to create a special recreation district along the section of the San Marcos River adjacent to the Guadalupe and Caldwell County border. The bill is awaiting a vote in the House.

Tom Goynes, president of Texas Rivers Protection Association, said one of the ultimate goals of SB 234 is to use the newly hired law enforcement to help put a stop to the “serious binge drinking” while tubing.

“It may cost more money, but at least we’ll have more peace on the river,” Goynes said.

He said the attraction that once provided a relaxing place for people to cool off has transformed into an area no longer safe to bring children. This is due to visitors who use explicit language and drink excessively.

“It’s so out of control and dangerous that we’re just trying to focus on making the river a safe place,” said Dianne Wassenich, program director of the San Marcos River Foundation.

The water has been heavily polluted due to a lack of supervision by law enforcement, said Deborah Lane, Spring Lake Educational Operations manager at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

Lane said one of the reasons for the absence of law enforcement is because the river geographically borders three different counties, leaving jurisdiction unclear.

According to a press release from Sen. Zaffirini’s office, the bill creates a seven-member board to enforce SB 234 upon the voters’ approval. The board will include three members appointed by each county commissioner’s court and one person appointed by the district board.

The board will be able to create rules and ordinances regarding littering with offenses up to a Class C misdemeanor enforced by law enforcement, according to the press release.

Citizens wanting to float on the river through Guadalupe or Caldwell counties will be required to pay a $3 fee for rental of water oriented recreation equipment or shuttle services.

The fees will fund law enforcement to police the river and staff to pick up trash left in and around the water, Wassenich said. There is currently a deficit of officers that can effectively supervise the area, she said.

“Caldwell County is not very wealthy,” Wassenich said. “They don’t have money to fund enough police to handle 6,000 tubers on the river on any given day.”

The river is paved with cans, bottles and glass, Lane said.

“There are a lot of bottles people take down to the river,” Goynes said. “If we can just eliminate the glass it would be a huge improvement.”

Wassenich said action needs to be taken to harbor a safer environment.

Although SB 234 would supply funding for additional officers and cleaning services, Lane said the bill is not complete because it does not dictate a “can ban,” which outlaws open containers in the water.

“SB 234 doesn’t address the problem of people drinking and littering on the river,” Lane said. “Without the can ban, the bill won’t have a direct effect.”

The House of Representatives is scheduled to discuss the prospective legislation in a hearing this week.

“I think we’ll have a decision by the end of this coming week,” Wassenich said.

Goynes said if the bill dies in the House, then he will push hard to have the river classified as a “linear state park” by the Texas Parks and Wildlife department. He said the consumption and display of alcohol on the river would be completely outlawed if his actions succeeded.

Wassenich encouraged students to get a “litter bag” to carry with them as they float along the river. The litter bags are available at the San Marcos Lions Club, she said.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t have more students pushing for this,” Goynes said. “Something needs to be done.”