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Trouble on the Clackamas River

County must find a way to stop last year's drunken partying on the river

As Clackamas County grows, so do the strains on its signature river. From its headwaters in the Cascades to its terminus at the Willamette, the Clackamas River plays a delicate balancing act.

It supports fish and wildlife, the water needs of a growing population (including West Linn) and increasing recreational opportunities. The latter item has grabbed the largest headlines over the past year. Last year, county commissioners banned drinking in county parks along the river from July through September.

River recreation had become synonymous with drunken revelry. The tipping point was a reported small riot on the Fourth of July, but the summer had been marred by reports of trash strewn along the river, fights, damage to private property and beer - lots of it.

In the coming weeks, commissioners will decide what steps they'll take to prevent similar circumstances this year. If they support the recommendations of a recent task force, the effort to prevent mayhem on the Clackamas will fall flat, particularly if 2008 provides a hot summer.

A county task force, headed by Dan Zinzer and Pam Girtman of the county Department of Business and Community Services, proposed allowing drinking in parks once again - last year's ban was temporary. To curb last year's problems, the group wants to provide more portable toilets, build a new parking lot for river access and recruit volunteers to watch hot spots on the river at Barton and Carver parks.

Anyone curious about the effectiveness of volunteers sporting bright vests but no real authority need look no further than the recent safety fiasco on TriMet, when we all discovered that contracted security guards can't even check tickets.

Volunteers on the river may be able to maintain a small sense of order, but can do little except radio for help if something truly goes wrong, such as a small riot.

And if their actions are effective?

That prospect has the folks at Clackamas River Water concerned. The water supplier's treatment plant is just a few miles downriver from Barton Park. CRW board member Warren Mitchell is concerned that the party might move a little closer to CRW's property, creating the potential for serious trouble.

Mitchell pointed out that High Rocks near Gladstone used to be a hot spot for unsupervised swimming and partying. When the authorities cracked down, the party moved to Barton and Carver parks. Mitchell fears a crackdown there will send swimmers down river to CRW.

There was one glaring omission at the recent meeting to discuss river safety - Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts.

If there is one organization that should have a seat at the table in this discussion, it's the sheriff's office. That's the group responsible for river rescues and for enforcement along the river. When things get wild, deputies get the call.

So why wasn't Roberts or a representative at the meeting?

No one told them about it. It's unclear whether that was an intentional decision or a simple miscommunication, but it's unacceptable.

It bears repeating: If county commissioners should be listening to anybody about river safety, it should be the sheriff's office. Representatives from the sheriff's office were on hand at previous meetings, and expressed legitimate concerns.

For instance, while drinking in general can be a problem, the limitless supply of alcohol can be an even greater danger. The sheriff relayed stories of a few people floating along the river with a keg between them.

That's a recipe for disaster. If the county believes that permitting drinking at Barton and Carver is the right thing, perhaps it could find a compromise and set some sort of limit.

We understand that county parks are public property, and residents have a right to access. But there's no guarantee of access without limits, especially when dealing with a river that supplies more than just recreational opportunities.

In the coming weeks, county commissioners have a chance to enact some sort of real restrictions on the Clackamas. If they merely take the recommendations of the county task force, they're setting themselves up for another long summer.