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A Wild River Looks at Taming Its Future

September 28, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

PARKER, Ariz. — For more than five decades, California and Arizona boaters have been having a wet-and-wild good time in this far-flung desert outpost, towing their power boats and other water toys to a playful twist of the Colorado River known as Parker Strip.

On the craziest weekends, powerful racing boats whiz back and forth, chased by Jet Skis and Wave Runners that crisscross in their path, jumping wakes like water gnats. People on inner tubes and water skies are towed every which way, while boaters out for a casual float bob like buoys, hoping just to stay out of the way.

There are no speed limits. Skippers do not need a special license. And visitors can booze it up any time by tying up at one of six bars, an all-night Indian casino or any of the smaller resorts lining the waterfront.

It's part NASCAR, part Mardi Gras.

"This is a highway with no lanes and no directions," said Jack Withers, a Northridge banker who has been making trips here for 30 years. "And everyone drinks."

But the latest fatal speedboat collision, considered one of the worst along the Parker Strip, is awakening debate on whether the river scene and its nonstop spring-break party mood needs to be reined in. And there is mounting concern that the risks are worsening as families from Orange and Los Angeles counties snap up lavish second homes along the river, bringing bigger and more powerful boats and small armadas of personal watercraft with them.

The Sept. 19 accident -- a jarring reminder of the power of the vessels along the Parker Strip -- claimed the lives of a 21-year-old Laguna Hills man, his sister, and her best friend, both 18.

Jonathan and Jacquel Herbert and Ashley Rollins died of blunt trauma and drowning after their boat was broadsided by an oncoming speedboat that struck their bow, then passed over the boat. A fourth passenger, Josh Rodgers, 18, remains in a coma with serious head injuries.

"Maybe something like this will make us wake up and say 'Hey, maybe there's a problem here,' " said Jay W. Howe, a La Paz County, Ariz., supervisor. "I certainly would support anything that would improve the safety and lessen the loss of life on the river."

Tamed by Parker Dam to the north and Headgate Dam to the south, the strip snakes about 14 miles from Lake Havasu through clay-colored canyons and dusty scrublands dividing California and Arizona. For better or worse, danger has been part of this landscape since Marion Beaver set up the first river racing course in 1947.

"It was a tremendous hit," said Beaver, who staged countless races over the years, he and his friends setting speed records -- and some of them dying -- along the way.

Before racing was introduced, Beaver said, nobody came to Parker. This town of two stoplights and a virtually treeless downtown is a perfect square mile, laid out as a stop for the Santa Fe Railway, its growth limited by surrounding Indian land. The strip, a few miles away and outside the reservation, has shaped the community's personality.

Campgrounds and recreational vehicle parks popped up along the banks, providing cheap crash pads for the crowds as word spread about this new boaters' paradise. The scene gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, when boats formed huge flotillas across the river's span, allowing passengers to party from deck to deck and shore to shore.

As accidents mounted, the strip gained a nickname: the "Red River."

Whether the river is safer now is a matter of intense debate.

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, of the 1,851 accidents between 1998 and 2002 on the Colorado River, 272 occurred in the area comprising Parker Strip and Lake Havasu.

Although authorities say accidents have been reduced and the crowds are more family-oriented since the strip's "Fort Lauderdale West" days, others say the risk has simply shifted as the bigger boats and fleets of personal watercraft have moved in.

As the image of the strip has changed, so has its clientele. Wealthier visitors tow in powerful "cigarette" boats with engines so large the vessels sit nose up in the water, flattening out only when they reach top speed. Jet Skis and Wave Runners -- known as "water couches" on the river -- follow the big boats closely to ride their wake. Sometimes the small watercraft are all but invisible to the boaters.

Speed is a relative term on the river. The rule is that boaters must demonstrate "prudent" behavior, but there is no speed limit. One deputy said he was once unable to ticket a boater who was traveling 119 mph.

Marine safety officers with the La Paz County Sheriff's Department, which patrols the strip looking for drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs, estimate that one in 10 drivers they stop is drunk or under the influence of drugs.

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