FAIRBANKS — Plan on floating the Chena River this weekend? Expect to see an increased law enforcement presence as Alaska State Troopers participate in a national program targeting boating under the influence.
A year ago, more than 1,000 boaters were contacted statewide by 32 troopers patrolling state waters as part of Operation Dry Water.
The nationwide Dry Water campaign has taken place since 2009. It targets boaters under the influence of drugs and alcohol, because drugs or alcohol play a role in 16 percent of recreational boating deaths, according to the Coast Guard and the nonprofit National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, which coordinate the program.
But in Alaska last year, only one person was arrested for operating a boat under the influence during the weekend. Many more stops were made related to laws governing life jackets, sport fishing and boat licenses, which led to 49 citations. Some 37 warnings were issued last year.
Troopers are planning similar levels of enforcement this year, said Lt. Steve Hall, campaign coordinator with the troopers.
Under boating safety laws, there must be at least one life vest on board a boat for every person while it is under way. Everyone under 13 years old must be wearing their life jacket unless inside an enclosed cabin.
The law governing boating under the influence is the same as the law for driving under the influence, with one key difference: It governs non-motorized vessels, including kayaks and canoes.
Whether it extends to rafts or inner tubes depends on the technical definition of the word “watercraft” in state law and is somewhat in the hands of individual troopers, said Capt. Burke Waldron with the wildlife troopers.
“There is some discretion used there in terms of the design of the vessel and how it’s being used,” he said. “Inner tubes are not typically seen as vessels.” But, “there could be a situation where someone on a $30 Wal-Mart raft could potentially be charged with a (boating under the influence)” he said.
Waldron recalled only a few DUI arrests involving non-motorized boats. One was a kayaker in Southeast. Another involved a drift boater on the Kenai Peninsula.
Troopers have already conducted one sweep in the Fairbanks area that led to numerous citations during Memorial Day weekend. The patrol yielded 65 boat safety violations, two boat registration violations and 11 sport fishing violations. Troopers also responded to a drowning in an Interior lake that weekend.
The timing of patrols is not designed to maximize citation revenue, trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said. In fact, money from citations goes to the state’s general fund, not to the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the troopers.
“We are not filling quotas. We are not trying to line the department’s pockets,” she said. “We are doing our job. We are trying to keep you from going home in a body bag.”
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.