Boat Patrol readies for Water Follies

BENTON COUNTY, Wash. -- In just a week, you'll be hearing the roar of the Hydros on the Columbia as the Unlimiteds head to our neck of the woods.

It's the 49th Water Follies. A whole lot of fun down along the banks of the river. Folks packing their way into Columbia Park for what has become an annual migration of sorts.

And of course, it's not just the park that flooded with fans, but the river as well.

With a few brushes with some unruly boaters, the Benton County Boat Patrol says it's shaping up to be a fairly busy year on the river.

And they say it's only going to get busier as we head into Water Follies weekend.

"We look very hard for people that are drinking and operating a boat."

Deputy Tom Morton has been running the Boat Patrol for almost a decade. He says Water Follies Weekend is by far the busiest time of year on the Columbia.

As many as 27 marine patrols from an assortment of law enforcement agencies will make runs during boat races. But rules for drinking in a boat might surprise you.

"There is no open container law on a boat. So it's not un-lawful to have an open container of alcohol while operating the vessel. What is illegal is to operate a vessel under the influence," Deputy Morton says.

He says the best way to avoid getting a BUI is to designate a driver, much like you would before going out to the bar.

But their patrols don't just focus on alcohol.

"We still have people who get out there who don't realize they need flares, who don't realize kids of a certain age need a life jacket, or even riding on the outside of the boat," he added.

They want to boaters to understand they're not there just to write tickets, but to keep everyone safe.

Which, because of shrinking budgets, is becoming more and more difficult.

Until this week, the boat patrol was only out Saturday and Sunday. But in years past, they had boats rolling Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They say it's because of a lack of funding from the Washington State Parks Department. Which ultimately could mean less time spent on the river, and less safety for those boaters.

Still, they hope to have patrols going all weekend from here to Labor Day. But look out even more patrols once the action ramps up this weekend.

Franklin County and Walla Walla County will all be running boat patrols throughout the summer with extra patrols Water Follies weekend.