Drew Podany thinks safe driving over the 4th of July weekend isn’t just about the roads.
The Yankton-based National Park Service ranger notes that boaters can also be cited for driving under the influence and safety violations. The same goes for intoxicated passengers who create hazards.
“We are part of Operation Dry Water,” he said. “It’s a year-round campaign to promote sober driving on the water. We are particularly emphasizing the 4th of July weekend – July 2-4 – and really ramping up our operations.
Podany is the chief ranger for the Visitor and Resource Protection (VRP) division of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR). He and his crew are planning an extremely busy long holiday weekend.
“We’ve been really busy over the past few weekends, and I think that’s what we can expect on July 4 and the rest of the summer,” he said.
“So far, our numbers (visitors) are higher than the last two years. Turn the page, and I think we’ll see even more numbers than we saw for Memorial Day.
Operation Dry Water focuses on the debilitation that alcohol and drug use create in boat operators and their passengers.
“When it comes to boating-related deaths, alcohol is the No. 1 culprit,” he said. “Swimming wears you out a little faster and you can develop boat legs that leave you feeling a little dizzy. Then you add alcohol to it and you have problems.
Intoxicated passengers also pose a risk, Podany said.
“Passengers who drink alcohol in the boat really can be just as dangerous to themselves and to others around them,” he said. “We have these cases where they influence the behavior of the operator of the vessel, or they go through a cycle of who is steering the boat and who is tubing or jet skiing. It’s just a downward cascade of one bad decision after another.
The BUI blood alcohol limit is 0.08%, like driving, Podany said. “We can charge someone with navigation under the influence if they have drunk enough to affect their ability to drive the boat,” he said.
Passengers can also be cited if they drink too much, the ranger said. “If you’re drunk and passed out in the boat, it’s not legal,” he said.
As an extension of Operation Dry Water, NPS rangers will work with other safety measures, such as whether the boat has a sufficient number of life jackets and other safety devices.
Rangers can also perform general security inspections, Podany said.
“We can end these trips for someone who doesn’t have the required equipment,” he said. “We can take them out of the river, we can quote them and we can take them out of the water.”
NPS rangers will remain visible in their special vehicles and boats with law enforcement signage on the sides.
“We have specific markings, so if you see a few silver-looking metallic aluminum boats with green and silver stripes, that’s us,” he said. “We’ll be out all summer.”
Besides the usual violations, Podany has seen an increase in MIPs (minors in possession) on and around the water. In addition to being illegal, minors are at greater risk of accidents resulting in injury and even death, he said.
“What’s even scarier is that we had a decent number of adults providing alcohol to minors,” he said. “I take this matter very seriously and will take each of (these adults) to justice.”
Podany spends time on the boat ramps under his jurisdiction, not just for alcoholism treatment, but for overall awareness.
“We would like to find out all the issues and put them aside before they go out on the water and have the possibility of hurting someone else,” he said.
At the state level, officials in South Dakota and Nebraska are also participating in Operation Dry Water.
The effort is aimed at avoiding problems and eliminating those that pose a danger to others, according to Joe Keeton, law enforcement specialist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
“Every year our state suffers from boating incidents and tragedies that could have been avoided if it weren’t for the presence of drugs or alcohol,” he said. “Our job is to protect members of the communities we serve and to ensure that boaters, paddlers and anyone who visits our waters can safely enjoy their time with family and friends.”
Operation Dry Water is a coordinated effort across the country and beyond, Keeton said.
“South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks joins all 56 U.S. states and territories in doing our part to keep boaters safe and prevent incidents caused by boating under the influence,” he said.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has joined Operation Dry Water to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities related to boating under the influence. Alcohol consumption while boating is one of the main causes of death among boaters.
In Nebraska, it is illegal to operate a motorboat with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or higher. This constitutes a BUI, which carries penalties such as impoundment of the vessel, fines, jail time and loss of navigation privileges.
In a press release, Game and Parks officials outline the dangers arising from BUI.
Drinking alcohol can impair a boater’s judgment, balance, vision and reaction time. It may increase fatigue and susceptibility to the effects of cold water immersion. Alcohol is also dangerous for passengers as intoxication can cause slips, falls overboard and other dangerous accidents.
“The commission encourages boaters to enjoy the boating season with their friends and family, and we also encourage them to do so in a safe and responsible manner,” said Craig Stover, administrator of the Enforcement Division of the law.
Game and Parks also recommends that everyone have all required boating safety equipment on board, including U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets or flotation devices, lights, fire extinguisher, horn, bucket rescue and an orange flag if you shoot skiers and tubers.
Children 12 and under and anyone riding or operating a personal watercraft or being towed on a trailer must wear a US Coast Guard approved life jacket. Anyone operating a motorboat or personal watercraft must be at least 14 years old.
During Operation Dry Water 2021, 53 game and park conservation officers contacted 1,127 boaters. These contacts resulted in 209 safety warnings, 91 citations and four BUIs.
Safety issues are not limited to boating, alcohol and drugs, Podany said. The Independence Day holiday also presents risks of fireworks both on land and on water.
“It’s a big issue that we’ll be watching,” he said. “People can’t shoot fireworks over the river, and they can’t shoot them on National Park Service property.”
Podany pointed to dangers ranging from people shooting fireworks from boats and the shore, posing a threat not only to themselves but also to swimmers and others nearby.
“Boats can be ticking time bombs and catch fire,” he said. “You have explosives on board and swimmers in the area, and things can go wrong very easily.”
South Dakota Fire Marshal Paul Merriman is urging people who want to set off fireworks during the July 4 holiday to use them responsibly and safely.
Fireworks sales began last Monday in South Dakota and will continue through July 5. The last day to legally discharge fireworks is July 10.
“We understand that a lot of people enjoy setting off fireworks, but at the same time we urge people to be careful,” Merriman said. “If used incorrectly, fireworks can be dangerous to people and property.”
Merriman said people should make sure they know their city or county’s rules or ordinances regarding handling fireworks. Even with the recent rains, Merriman said the hot, dry conditions can still pose a potential risk to those using fireworks.
Lewis and Clark Lake and the Missouri River in the Yankton area have seen camping, boating, and visitation records in recent years.
Podany doesn’t expect those numbers to drop anytime soon.
“The numbers are going to be very high. We have multiple events scheduled throughout the summer with over 100 attendees, from paddle board events to poker races,” he said.
“We also work with special use permits. Permit seekers have requested a higher number of participants than in the past, so I think you will definitely see more people this summer and in the future.
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