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The Russian River was both cause for celebration and host on Saturday in Healdsburg, where hundreds of people gathered to celebrate a waterway that provides for recreation and wildlife, drinking water and vital irrigation for the region’s farm crops.

The Healdsburg Water Carnival took over Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach under sunny skies with a high that reached 103 degrees. Those on hand found respite in the 76-degree water and activities that included floating wine barrel races, a long inflatable water slide and rides from the battery-powered Sandy the Swan float.

While the focus was on fun, the event also served as a reminder to the key role the river plays in Sonoma County, said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, which co-sponsored the festival with the Regional Parks Foundation.

“The river is everything to this community,” said Whitaker who started with the county as a Veterans Beach lifeguard. “It’s an important part of the natural beauty of the county.”

Recreational activities along the waterway have broadened in recent years to include those who now use stand-up paddleboards and perform yoga along the river. Out-of-town visitors are increasingly staying multiple days, according to the county.

“What we are really seeing is year-over-year increases in people who are bringing their own kayaks and inner tubes and actually floating and experiencing the river as it was intended,” Whitaker said.

The water carnival began in 1905 and featured a parade, elaborate floats, feats of strength and a beauty pageant that selected a Water Carnival queen. But the event was canceled for decades in the aftermath of World War II.

The Sonoma County Regional Parks brought the festival back in 2011 to spur more locals and tourists to visit the Healdsburg beach. But the event was suspended for 2014 and 2015 for repairs to the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge and the nearby seasonal dam. It resumed last year and this year’s event featured two new activities — kayak tours by the Russian Riverkeeper environmental group and pedal boat races.

“My favorite thing about this is the connection to Healdsburg’s past,” said Healdsburg Mayor Shaun McCaffery as he sat in the shade under the bridge.

McCaffery said he is pushing for more floats beyond Sandy the Swan to participate in the festival in future years.

That would please Mickey Degan of Cloverdale, who graduated from Healdsburg High School in 1954 and remembered the festival’s heyday. “It was something. You had young kids in speed boats. It was a big deal,” Degan said. “They had boat races and water skiing. Now (people) go to the big lake (Lake Sonoma).”

But for many, the festival provided an opportunity for families to spend a summer day outside enjoying a natural amenity. Tory Snyder of Petaluma brought her four daughters — ages 16 months to 12 years — because she knew there would be a range of activities they could all enjoy.

“It’s nice having access to something where they can play outside and not just be at a pool,” Snyder said.

Proceeds from the carnival benefited the Regional Parks’ Russian River Water Safety Patrol, which provides water-safety education programs and free life vests to beach visitors.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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