BASS LAKE — With the approach of the Labor Day weekend and the traditional wind-down of summer activities at Bass Lake, the Madera County Sheriff’s office is reporting boating under the influence (BUI) arrests are up 45 percent in 2019.
Madera County Sheriff’s Corporal Amy Roussell said she attributes the increase in BUI arrests “to the training and experience of our staff on the lake.”
“We’ve had about seven or eight BUIs so far this summer,” Roussell said. “Most years, we only see about three or four.”
Roussell has overseen MCSO’s Bass Lake Boat Unit for nearly a decade — except for several summers when she returned to regular deputy duties.
On a typical summer weekend, Roussell says four or five MCSO deputies are actively working the lake. “Around summer holidays, we do bump up the numbers of staffing,” she added.
MCSO deputies monitor activity on Bass Lake in two patrol boats and two WaveRunners.
Next summer, the Boat Unit expects to launch a brand new 22-foot aluminum patrol boat, worth over $150,000.
The custom patrol boat is made in Washington state by Munson Boats. “It’s custom-built for the purposes of what we need it for,” Roussell said. “It takes a long time to deliver because it has to be fabricated from scratch.”
The new boat will replace the department’s aging 18-foot work barge, which has been out of commission since the end of last season.
Roussell knows a little something about the Bass Lake area — she grew up there and has been part of the Boat Unit since 2009. But she actually started her law enforcement career as an LAPD officer, working in SoCal for nine years before joining MCSO in 2006.
The corporal, who reports directly to a lieutenant, explained this week that on the water, boaters must abide by the California Harbors and Navigation Code, which is similar to the motor vehicle code.
“The Harbors and Navigation Code makes BUI a misdemeanor,” she said. “It does not affect your driving history. However, if you have had a history of DUI arrests and have convictions, penalties may be stiffer for a BUI.”
Current California law calls for up to one year in county jail and as much as a $1,000 fine for BUI convictions.
In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown approved a new licensing system for California boaters that, by 2025, will require everyone who operates a vessel in the Golden State to possess a valid California Boater Card.
“The Boater Card is a brand new section in the H&N Code law,” Roussell explained.
The new licensing system is being enacted in stages. Next year, boaters age 35 and under will have to have a Boater Card.
While not facing penalties nearly as stiff as those for DUI, boat operators arrested for BUI are led away from the lake in handcuffs and booked into the county jail.
Aside from the increase in BUIs, Roussell reports it’s been a “relatively” quiet summer on the water. Injuries this season typically have involved “wave runners flipping riders and tubers getting caught in tow ropes,” she said.
“We still have a month and a half to go in our season but so far we’ve only had seven or eight accidents and no collisions. And we’ve only seen three boats sink this summer. Last year, we had eight boats go down.”
If a boat or jet ski sinks at the lake, one of the Boat Unit’s concerns is containing leaking oil and gas. Next season, all of the MCSO deputies patrolling the lake will have the ability to react much more quickly and efficiently to oil and gas spills.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife recently awarded the Boat Unit a $35,000 grant. The funds will be used to purchase a supply of booms — super-absorbent material that Roussell said looks like “a huge roll of paper towels.”
Deputies will be able to spread the 8 x 10 foot sections of booms over spills immediately after they occur — instead of the current process which requires them to call in another specialist agency to clean up the spill.
As part of the grant award for the booms, which cost approximately $600 each, the Boat Unit will soon take possession of a specially designed trailer to be parked lakeside. The trailer is designed to handle and process the contaminated booms and other hazardous materials.
“This grant will help us protect the fish and other natural resources sitting there in the lake that just got contaminated,” Roussell said.
The only fatality at Bass Lake this summer involved a 43-year-old Texas man who drowned on July 2 while rescuing his 12-year-old daughter, who had fallen off an inflatable tube being pulled by a boat.
On the afternoon of the incident, MCSO boat patrol deputies had responded to the area near the Lakeside Amphitheater about 5:15 p.m. and began searching for the man, who had disappeared under water after saving his child.
The victim, Kien Phan, from Sachse, Texas, was located underwater by Boat Patrol and Search and Rescue Rope Team members shortly after 6 p.m.
Lifesaving measures were performed by EMS and deputies at the scene, but were unsuccessful. Sierra Ambulance Service and Cal Fire responded to the call and California Highway Patrol also dispatched a helicopter to assist.