NEW BRAUNFELS - New Braunfels Police Chief Tom Wibert likened the crowds of tubers on the Comal River at peak times to "the Normandy Invasion" and said he'd like to see a river that is "less of an MTV environment and more of a family environment."
Wibert and Fire Chief John Robinson reported to New Braunfels City Council on Monday about tubing conditions on the Comal River in what Wibert termed "a strange season."
The strangeness has included the first closing of the river to tubers since 2004; two drownings at a riverside tree, now cut down, from which a rope swing popular with tubers hung; and an officer allegedly being choked unconscious at riverside by an inebriated off-duty U.S. Marine.
Wibert said the problems include too many people, alcohol-fueled bad behavior, and slow flows extending tubing trips from two to four hours.
"On a four-hour float, a lot more alcohol is consumed than on a two-hour float," Wibert said. "Alcohol is the fuel driving the issues we're having."
Drunken, passed-out tubers have to be awakened to prevent them from floating past the Last Tubers Exit, he said.
"The level of intoxication is way too high. Bad language and rowdiness is way too high. We've had to resort to Tasers and pepper spray in making arrests. It's not a family environment. It's like an R-rated movie where you can't change the channel."
He said the sheer numbers of tubers make law enforcement very difficult, and present safety issues for river officers and other city employees. City Manager Mike Morrison said the river was closed on Saturday because "we did not want our officers dealing with tubers after dark."
Laundry list of issues
The chief ran through a litany of other problems he's seen during the first weeks of the tourist season, in which low flows on the Guadalupe River are driving tubers to the Comal's comparatively more abundant flows.
Those other problems include:
• Traffic and parking. "People just park anywhere they feel like parking," Wibert said. "Traffic and parking is a huge issue."
• Litter. He said river police and park rangers are "literally wading in beer cans" and hundreds of floating plastic cups.
• Noise. "There are some people who think the song they're listening to is the song everybody, including the people living in houses on the shore, wants to hear," the chief said.
Wibert estimated peak crowds on the river as high as 15,000. River Manager Nathan Pence, however, said he thought that estimate was only about 40 percent of the actual peak totals.
"We get to the point where you literally cannot see the water. It's just people shore to shore," Wibert said. "It doesn't stop for hours and hours. It looks like the Normandy Invasion."
On Memorial Day, he said, authorities determined the conditions were unsafe and discussed closing the river and making people get out. But the prospect of thousands of drunken, angry tubers emerging from the river and into the city's neighborhoods made them abandon that plan.
Instead, it was decided to control crowds by limiting access to the river via the Gateway to the Comal at Prince Solms Park until space became available on the river.
"In 20 minutes, 3,000 people were waiting in line," he said.
Wibert said officers have been helping tubers out of the river at the Last Tubers' Exit to prevent "crowds of intoxicated people from gathering. We've been using a bullhorn at the waterline to let people know what to do."
Officers are carrying cutters to snip the lines that tubers use to tie together the tubes of their party's members. Sometimes 10 or 15 tubes are tied together, he said, causing tube jams. Outfitters have been asked not to supply string or line to tubers.
By the numbers
As far as citations, Wibert said 944 have been written this year - for jumping from bridges, littering, minor in possession, noise, parking, other violations - compared to only 693 all of last year.
The police department has had to increase staffing so much that it's spent about $65,000 in overtime that isn't in the budget.
Officers are also stained by the workload, which requires them to work most Saturdays all summer long in a hot, hostile environment "of unappreciative, intoxicated people," Wibert said.
Robinson said 30 percent or more of his department's calls are "directly river related." The situation, he said, is affecting his department's overtime budget and "is very close to affecting our ability to do our regular business. It's been very difficult and challenging."
What can be done?
Asked by Mayor Pro Tem Mark Goodner for a recommendation on what to do, Wibert answered: "We've spent the last few weeks working on safety issues, things that we need to do right now to make the river safe and to make it run smoother. But I think the problem is more than a law enforcement problem. This is a community problem."
Wibert suggested decisions on what to do be made by a committee of community members, business people and government officials.
"We should work towards making a plan so that next year, we're all in agreement and can put something into action," the chief said.
Asked by Councilor Steven Digges what he'd do if he had one wish, Wibert said he'd like to find a way to correct the tubers' behavior and create a manageable number of tubers "so we can have a family river on weekends."
Council decided an ad-hoc committee of citizens would be formed to start working out a plan.
Mayor Gale Pospisil said she would not let the issue slip away.
"I'm not going to let that happen," she pledged. "I'm not going to let this get kicked down the road."