Are crowds at Northern California lakes too unruly? ‘Everybody’s in the same boat,’ officials say

As crowds head to cool off in the water early this summer, authorities at Discovery Park, Folsom Lake and other capital region waterways are taking steps to prevent incidents such as the ones that have occurred recently at other Northern California watering holes.

There have been various incidents reported since Memorial Day involving fights and other unruly crowds at Northern California waterways that have led to arrests, injuries, and even death.

A fight broke out at Lake Berryessa on Saturday that left one person dead from a gunshot wound and five others with stabbing injuries. One person among the injured was arrested on suspicion of grabbing his gun from his vehicle during the melee, according to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office.

On Tuesday, deputies identified the suspect as Gabriel James Chavez, 25, of American Canyon. He was charged with murder in his first court appearance Tuesday.

In Stanislaus County on Sunday, 75 to 80 people had a confrontation with deputies who were patrolling near Woodward Reservoir. At least six people were arrested.

And, around Memorial Day, officials on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe shut down Zephyr Cove and several other beaches after numerous reports of fights among tourists.

Even UC Davis Chancellor Gary May sent a letter apologizing on behalf of college students who left behind trash at Lake Shasta during the holiday weekend, which officials said will take months to clean.

“I am disappointed by the significant amount of trash left behind, and the disregard these students showed,” May wrote in a June 5 letter to Douglas Winn, a Shasta-Trinity National Forest assistant recreation officer and lake manager.

Forest officials spent about six hours picking up trash after students from UC Davis and the University of Oregon after they rented about 130 houseboats and camped on Slaughterhouse Island, Winn told the Redding Record Searchlight.

‘Behave accordingly, and enjoy yourselves’

Sgt. Elmer Marzan of the Sacramento County Regional Parks said he believes the county’s waterways are safe in part because alcohol is banned in certain spots along the American River Parkway and at Discovery Park near the confluence of the American. Officials also restrict drinking along the waterways during major summer holidays.

“We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had anything of that magnitude that occurred at Berryessa or Tahoe,” Marzan said.

Barry Smith, Chief Ranger of the Gold Fields District of California State Parks, pointed to an alcohol ban at Folsom and Natoma lakes — as well as state park-specific rangers who patrol the area — as key factors in preventing lakefront incidents.

Folsom Lake beaches are especially crowded in June and on the days temperatures first heat up above 90 degrees, Smith said, but he noticed a change in how crowds behave since the shoreline alcohol ban was enacted in 2003. Officials also hold boating DUI checkpoints several times during the summer.

“I saw the change where beaches were really rowdy to where families started to come back,” Smith said.

While authorities are not able to prevent all alcohol consumption at the lake, Smith said that the complete ban at the lakes means that lakegoers are more thoughtful about their consumption.

By patrolling continuously, rangers can also evict people for alcohol usage early in the day, preventing incidents that tend to occur as the day wears on.

On Sacramento County waterways, where alcohol consumption is legal in many spots, authorities emphasize responsible drinking.

“We encourage folks: Watch your consumption of alcohol, because alcohol is usually a contributing factor in events that kind of spark something,” Marzan said. “Go ahead and behave accordingly, and enjoy yourselves.”

Water levels also have an effect on lake attendance and crowds. High water levels early in the summer and in “good water years” tend to draw more people to the lake, Smith said.

“It’s an excitement,” Smith said. “People come out, they’re excited, and so it gets overrun sometimes.”

These high water levels also minimize space available for parking and shorten shorelines. What was once a 100-yard shoreline can get down to 25 to 30 yards, forcing visitors into tighter quarters.

Smith said attendance at state-run spots has normalized from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when beaches were overrun almost every day. Since the pandemic has ebbed, weekends have gone back to being the busiest days of the week.

“Our visitors need to be reminded that you sometimes have to curb that excitement and be respectful,” Smith said. “Everybody’s in the same boat and wants to come out to the lake.”

The Bee’s Ishani Desai contributed to this story.