Comal River

Tubers crowd the Comal River near the tube chute on Saturday afternoon. 

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."

 

(9) comments

Laura STOLINSKI

You can't ban alcohol on the river.

Carlos Cedillo

The river used to be free and easily accessible to residents of New Braunfels, There is too much concrete along the banks now, and the City must mandate that some of that old concrete be removed and the natural landscape restored on private and public river banks! Wonder why the River is like a sewer? What are our sewers made of? Why did your ancestors move to New Braunfels in the first place? Because it WAS beautiful, now it is a cesspool. If you want change, have the courage to speak the truth to power and restore the beauty of the riverbanks.

Carlos Cedillo

What I saw this past weekend on the river was a complete catastrophe, not made any better by certain construction going on. The Comal is polluted, plain and simple, the water is grey and sticky, there is certain to be an outbreak of a serious water-borne disease any day now. The City must take samples and when there is too much toxic material in the water, the police must order everybody out and shut down the tube rentals. There must be quotas for how many tubes each Outfitter can rent out, and yes, I too believe alcohol must be banned on busy weekends. The "MTV" crowd is obnoxious and dangerous but it is the City that is responsible for safety and who should be sued when a contagious disease becomes epidemic on the Comal River.

WEBB

I see my name has been brought into this again and again the premise is incorrect. I have never fought to keep alcohol on the river. I only care that if some well behaved folks want to have some beers and float the river, punks and idiots that can't behave shouldn't ruin it for them. Seeing a tradition ruined by the worst amongst us shouldn't happen, but if it does, so be it. Certainly the amount of violence we are seeing has to be addressed. This guy that choked one of our police needs some prison time.

I have offered my thoughts on it to anyone--regardless of their interests or "side"--that has asked. I have always supported a broad based consensus approach that would allow us to formulate a real river management plan like other rivers in the US have. We in the City of NB do not have the authority to ban alcohol on the river or even to regulate how many people use the river. That's not me just saying that. We as a City have been told this by the TABC and others. The public safety and welfare provisions only work for temporary closures like we saw last week. The river belongs to the State and is governed by the State of Texas. Charging fees to use the river isn't going to work, either. We could charge in parks to enter the river, but there are many private access points. Charging fees only to people that use outfitters isn't fair, either. If I bring my own tube I should contribute to the river cleaning and policing just as much as someone who rents their tube.

In order for us in the City of NB to get the authority to really control what happens on the rivers in the city, there has to be a really broadly supported plan that legislators from all over the state can see is a great way forward. Only in that case will anything ever change. I have explained this multiple times in every forum I can, but we still have people that want to just go and out and try to ban alcohol on the Comal. Well, that's fine by me, but the effort is a complete waste of time. It's not going to happen unless the TABC/legislature can see that it is very widely supported not only in New Braunfels but in Texas.

So, what I do fight against is ignorance. Getting everyone all riled up about something that can't happen in the way it is attempting to be done, and then cursing those that would actually try to do it right is bothersome. Putting together a petition to take to TABC or wherever is going to do nothing in the long run. If one wants to waste their time and start a bunch of fights with their neighbors and have the end result be no change whatsoever, then I guess that is one's business. It's just been done before.

I served on river activity committees and told those who would listen what I thought the best way forward was based on what has been done on other rivers. But, measured approaches don't sell. It's the extremists on each end of the spectrum that are too often heard, and that's the direction the last RAC went. The end result was a bunch of unpleasantness and "changes" that didn't change anything, but made people dislike and distrust each other more. Every time we have a really high use summer on the Comal the kneejerk reaction comes up, and it never has worked.

As distasteful as it may be to the differing parties, they are going to have to make compromises and come together if they ever want this to change. Outfitters, riverfront homeowners, and the general public are going to have to come up with something that works. Until then, one side trying to change something without including the other stakeholders is not going to make sustainable changes that won't be reversed by the State, lawsuits, or elections.

In the end, it will take probably a 5 to 10 year effort with a very good basis of understanding in what folks in other communities across the US have done in these circumstances to get most groups--including the outfitters--to buy in and support. If we had done that 5 or 10 years ago, we'd have a program in place right now that would be working. We probably could've also capped usage numbers at that time.

River management plans are very good tools and can promote the outfitting business in order to get them to buy in to a plan. For example, one for New Braunfels could have rules set up to manage things when the rivers are at different levels. We are seeing the extreme use on the Comal right now because of the conditions on the Guadalupe and we will see them everytime the Guadalupe is running over 800 or so CFS and below 120 or so CFS. It is more dangerous to have more people on the Comal in high water on the Guadalupe than low because of the dangerous confluence, but still the situation is similar.

In these circumstances ONLY, if there was a program set up to where an outfitter knew he or she had say 2000 (this is a wild guess--no idea how many people a given outfitter is putting on the Comal these days) permits to use on a Saturday or Holiday (important to keep in mind we are only talking about 10 days a year) and that some percentage of them had to be off the water by a certain times or the outfitters faces a penalty, outfitters would figure out a way to make money on it. You want to take a tube out all day and be on the last shuttle back? I have 10 permits for that and they cost 10X. You want a tube to make one trip down and you and the family will be back by noon? That costs x. If you go past your time, every hour is 20X because I will be sanctioned by the City.

The idea would be to stagger use of choke points and places where we see the most problems and hazards. The general public would also have to be using some sort of system to make it work as well. You get a tube from an outfitter or a ticket from the City and you have to have it back or be off the water by X time. Ideal? No, not in the slightest. But could something like this work to get something changed? It has worked elsewhere and there are people a lot more versed in these things than I am that could come up with ways to simplify it for users, outfitters, and enforcement.

Overall, things like this are much more complex. But, outfitters in other areas of the US have found that they can work it out and a lot of environmental and behavioral issues have been taken care of. Educating the visitors/public on a system this complex would be a nightmare, but something will have to be done.

If you want to ban alcohol on the Comal, I suggest you get a pad for your forehead and one for a wall while you're at it. Want a way forward that will help everyone? Study the law and what others have done and open your mind and arms to more folks and their ideas. One "side" is not going to win this one. As long as the people that want to change things keep doing it the wrong way, the people that want things to stay the same will get what they want because there will be no sustainable change. There may be temporary changes, but if they result in lawsuits, petitions, etc., they won't last.

I want something that really works and will last. That's what I have always advocated. To say otherwise is to be incorrect or worse.

Laura STOLINSKI

You can not ban alcohol on the river folks. They tried a few years ago and it is a legal black hole.

Easy fix: charge non-residents $20 entry fee from city owned access points. The article says that there were 15,000 people on the river. That's $300,000. Police over-time: paid for, river clean-up: paid for, ADDITIONAL security/policing: paid for, advertising: paid for.

People willingly pay $60+ for a day at Schlitterbahn and there are NONE of the above issues there.

Jim ALSTON

The lawless days of the old west haven't completely gone from New Braunfels. Where is our modern day Matt Dillon and Judge Roy Bean?

Stoney WILLIAMS

Who Lawdy we need a change, on the river, but I doubt its what most of the mouth breathers have in mind. A few years back Ken Valentine and his river Gestapo created all these ridiculous rules that the cowardly council adopted. They were all told by longtime police officers and locals that these rules would be ineffective and embarrassing, and they were right. It has created more trash on the river not less and apparently hasn’t done anything to curb the “bad” behavior like yelling and laughing and playing music and singing.
The city council, city manager, and the police dept are all run by “out of towners” who know nothing about New Braunfels or the river. They are the ones making everything worse. Don’t put the stewardess in the pilot’s seat. Mark Hampton, Mr. Karnau, Bob Henry, Gary Henry and Jeff Henry, used to be in charge of the river from Landa Park to the last public exit and kept it safe and nice. The city takes over and it looks like a bombed out war zone patrolled by bored “20 something’s” looking for dates by running them over with their little riverboat. I won’t mention the incident but the police are no longer welcome unless called, on a certain water park property here in town.
The property owners along the river by and large understand what happens on weekends here in the summers. There are a few like Ken “I don’t even have my primary residence in New Braunfels” Valentine, feel like they speak for all the owners on the river and will make up any story no matter how exaggerated to get his agenda passed.
So here is what we do:
1. Lease the tube chute property and let them fix it up run the security on it.
2. Get rid of the stupid ordinances like the cooler, music, tube size ect.
3. Keep the police patrol boat out of the crowds.
4. Train the new / young officers on how to deal politely with our visitors that pay money to come to New Braunfels.
5. Patrol the end of the river and the banks of the park areas. The river can be patrolled by half the number they are using now and maybe we can get some officers back in our neighborhoods.
6. Stop electing retiree transplants, cowards, and people who only want to be popular to city council.

There! The river is fixed.
If you believe that all these people and tax money are coming to NB for the antique stores, museums, and historic buildings you won’t agree with my rant and you probably should run for city council.

Andrea Davis

I agree!!! Ban alcohol on the Comal. I do not think it will affect tourism. If anything more families will come here to float the Comal. I think it will help!!!! Let the alcohol stay on the Guadalupe. A few years ago we had the Rivers Activity Committee. And Kevin Webb fought to keep the alcohol on the Comal River. Has alcohol become so important in our lives that we will sacrifice our community and the safety of everyone from our children to our Police Officers?? Yes, a few bad seeds will ruin if or everyone!!! THE COMAL RIVER NEEDS TO BE ALCOHOL FREE!!!!

Lillian KANZ

If tubing our rivers is NOT about family but rather profanity and drunkenness, which puts every person on the river in danger, including law enforcement, then it's time for laws to change regarding alcohol on the river, to begin with. This would likely cut down on the amount of people wanting to go tubing here. Let them go somewhere else. We can live without them.

I've been in public restaurants where these drunks want to eat a meal and their obnoxious behavior does NOT end at the river. We've also worried about driving home among all of the drunks.

We need to take our community back!!!

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