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Cops on the Water

Sometimes, a good day at the lake can turn out worse than a bad day at the office.

If you’re one of the 20 or so people who get busted for boating under the influence (BUI) on Lake Nacimiento every year, that day can result in a loss of on-land driving privileges, a hefty fine, and a few hours in the slammer, all while your friends get to stay at the lake and play.

In order to keep local lakes a safe place for everyone to enjoy, park rangers and sheriff’s deputies have to enforce the rules that can’t be broken. Officer discretion is applied when appropriate, but if a boat driver is drunk behind the wheel, the hammer comes down as hard as it would on land.

But at one nearby lake, Lake Lopez, park rangers aren’t authorized to drop that hammer, and the people who can—the county sheriffs—are only on hand 15 days a year. But there are reasons Nacimiento park rangers can write citations and Lopez rangers can’t, and like most things, it comes down to money.

Well, money and need.


Lake Nacimiento has a reputation for being a partier’s paradise. An area toward the back of the lake called “the Narrows” has developed into something like the Central Coast’s answer to “Girls Gone Wild”: People young and younger waste the warm days away dancing 10 or 20 deep on pontoon boats, imbibing a few cold beverages, and wearing whatever makes the 100-plus temperature a little more comfortable.

Nacimiento Supervising Park Ranger Jim Spreng said that on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, there were 1,000 boats in the Narrows.

Along with the Narrows’ reputation, an average weekend day at Nacimiento brings in about 300 boats from all over California, and that’s not counting all the boats from private residences on the lake. The lake is open to boats 24 hours a day, and there’s no speed limit.

And Nacimiento is huge. The water recreational area alone covers 5,727 surface acres and includes 163 miles of shoreline.

Lake Nacimiento sits in San Luis Obispo County, but Monterey County owns the water in the lake. It’s patrolled by Monterey County park rangers, and San Luis Obispo County sheriffs join the force on the weekends.

Josh Calagna is a senior park ranger at Nacimiento. He believes that the drinking and partying at the lake has dropped in the past few years because of the ranger’s authority and an emphasis on enforcement.

“The boozing crowd doesn’t seem to be here as much as in the past,” he said. “They know we have the power to both cite them and arrest them.”

And cite and arrest they do.

While on the lake one day last month, Calagna and his boss, Spreng, issued numerous citations for the usual—speeding in the no-wake zones and driving the wrong way around the lake—but they also had to deal with more serious matters. They arrested a drunken driver, who at 3 p.m. admitted to have been drinking since 9 a.m.

The citations they wrote for the minor indiscretions were basically a fine; they don’t affect the driver’s driving record or insurance. While a BUI on the water carries the same severity as a DUI on the road, there’s a slight difference in the tests to prove it. After all, even a stone-cold sober person would have trouble walking a straight line on a boat that’s rocking in the waves.

Calagna and Spreng said they had seen a particular pontoon boat heading up to the Narrows earlier that morning. There were 14 young adults on board, and the rangers saw that the kids were drinking.

While heading into the Narrows later in the day, the rangers saw the pontoon boat heading down the wrong side of the lake. As they contacted the boat and talked with the driver, his slurred speech led them to believe he had been drinking. A field sobriety test followed.

Officers put a life jacket on the driver, brought him into their patrol boat, and proceeded with the expected questions: name, address, birthday, and employer. They then continued with a few unexpected ones: “Do you think you’re okay to drive?” “Do you know where you are now?” and “When did you last sleep?”

“Yes,” “Yes,” and “Last night,” were the replies.

Next came the tests. Since it would be too difficult to walk a white line, the authorities had the driver perform a series of hand-coordination tests.

As the driver’s friends drifted farther away, Calagna explained that he would demonstrate the tests and then ask the driver to perform them: alternately clapping the top and bottom of one hand, then touching a thumb to each finger. The driver counted while he performed the tasks.

The third test sounds simple enough to a sober person—say the alphabet from “C” to “Q”—but this one seemed to give the driver the most trouble. Starting at “A” a couple of times, then just stopping halfway through led Calagna to believe the subject was beyond the legal limit, and out came a breathalyzer device (technically not “the” breathalyzer, because that one is kept up in the ranger station).

“A person that has been drinking can usually do one thing at a time. But if they have to concentrate on two things at once … ” Spreng shook his head while his voice trailed off.

The driver blew a 0.18 while on the water—more than twice the legal limit of 0.08. Calagna told the driver he was being arrested for driving a boat under the influence; he told him to cooperate, kneel down, lean forward, and put his hands behind his back. Calagna put the driver’s wrists in handcuffs and read him his rights. The rangers found a sober driver and told her to take over the driving responsibilities of the pontoon boat. The rangers brought the drunken driver back to the boat launch where a sheriff’s department cruiser waited to take him to jail.


Compared to Nacimiento’s summer-long spring break atmosphere, Lake Lopez enjoys the reputation of being a family-oriented lake with a manageable amount of boats and 400,000 visitor days every year (10 visitor days can be explained as one person staying for 10 days or 10 people staying for one day). Lopez Lake is closed to boats at night, and authorities enforce a 40 mph speed limit. The water recreational area is 1,000 acres and includes 22 miles of shoreline.

While the lake—like Nacimiento—is full of wakeboarders, skiers, windsurfers, jet skis, fisherman, and the occasional drinker, Lake Lopez park rangers can’t use the threat of arrests as a deterrent, and Lopez Ranger Jeff Wilkens thinks that should change.

“I would like to see a person out here patrolling the lake every day, but there just isn’t the staffing for it,” he said. “If we did have a deputy out here more often, it would give [the park rangers] more time to do other things that are needed off the lake.”

Wilkens said he does a camp check every morning to make sure everything is in order, and he’s responsible for the maintenance of four primitive bathrooms around the lake. He also maintains and does repairs to the docks and boats, and is continually marking any potential dangers on the lake, like protruding rocks or shallow water.

The 15 days that San Luis Obispo Deputy Sheriff Jeff Nichols is at the lake, he balances enforcement with an eye for education.

Nichols doesn’t give out a lot of citations—only six since Memorial Day weekend. Instead of writing citations for every infraction, he chooses to teach boaters the need for safety.

“We try to warn people once before a citation is issued,” Nichols said. “Some violations are so flagrant and blatant that they plainly should have known.”

Nichols said the last citation he scratched definitely qualified.

On Aug. 2, Nichols and Wilkens were patrolling the lake when they saw four young girls operating two jet skis somewhat recklessly. The two made a stop and gave the girls pamphlets on the rules of watercraft operation—which they do on almost every contact.

Ten minutes later, they received a complaint from a boater who had been cut off by two jet skis. They found the girls going in the wrong direction down the wrong side of the lake around a blind corner. The girls were cited for negligent operation of a watercraft. Nichols said it might have saved their lives.

“Had a boat been coming around the corner, it would have taken all four of those girls out,” he said.

The direction of travel at all area lakes is modeled after recommended boat movement in narrow channels. Buoys are placed in the middle of the lake, and boaters are expected to keep the buoys to their left, the shore to the right, and to travel in a counter-clockwise direction around the lake. If drivers don’t follow these rules, a dangerous situation can develop, especially with a lake full of boats.

In the past 10 years, Lopez Lake has seen its visitorship rise from 228,000 visitor days a year to more than 400,000. The number of boats has risen, and the number of jet skis has exploded, but because of budget reasons, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department can’t staff the lake any more than the present one-day-a week average schedule.

“I would like to see us out here at least every day on the weekends, maybe even a couple of deputies,” Nichols said. “And I know the sheriff’s department would like that too. It’s just a matter of funding.”

Nichols and Wilkens said they make 40 to 60 contacts in one weekend day. They say that amount of contacts—all for possible rule violations—warrants the need for increased patrols.

Steve Bolts, a lieutenant who oversees the Administrative Services Unit for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, said the biggest reason San Luis Park Rangers are not peace officers is a financial one.

“A park ranger III [the highest level] tops out at $3,822 per month, where a deputy sheriff tops out at $5,250. And that doesn’t take into account the retirement benefits.”

He said San Luis rangers have never had peace officer status, and Monterey County rangers have been peace officers for a long time. It would take a County Board of Supervisors ordinance to change the position.

Wilkens said the bottom line is if everyone knows what they’re doing on the water, citations and arrests can be avoided.

“If people get to a lake or a body of water or any body of water, they should find out what the rules are before they go out,” he said. “Ignorance isn’t a defense.” ³

Staff Writer Matt McBride jumped ship, but he wasn’t cited for it, since he blew a .06 at the time. It was 9 a.m. E-mail comments or story ideas to

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