Alcohol ban extended to Steelhead and Sunset beaches on Russian River

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Summer trips to the river are about to change for some beachgoers, after Sonoma County Regional Parks announced Tuesday it will no longer allow alcohol at two popular beaches: Steelhead and Sunset.

That means five Russian River beaches under control of the county park system will now prohibit alcohol, including three in Forestville — Mom’s, Sunset and Steelhead beaches — as well as Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach and Guerneville River Park.

The new prohibitions, as well as a new reservation system limiting commercial bus access at Sunset and Steelhead beaches, are part of a larger effort to reduce negative impacts on neighborhoods surrounding county beaches and discourage alcohol-fueled nuisance behaviors.

“It’s going to be a good thing for the public in terms of kind of changing the culture a little bit more toward a family-oriented environment on those beaches,” said Scott Bolin, supervising ranger of Russian River beaches.

It’s also likely to boost safety, given the generally risky mix of alcohol and water, he and others said. The alcohol ban is in place daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

“We know some people can be very responsible with their use of alcohol, but at the same time we’re doing what we can to help park visitors, help the neighbors and kind of mesh all those factors,” Bolin said.

Park officials have wrestled for years with burgeoning attendance at river beaches — most of them later additions to the park systems that have proven explosively popular, providing wholesome, affordable, warm-weather fun for families and friends.

But public drunkenness, urination and even people passing out in private yards have been some of the regrettable byproducts. Other nuisances include underage drinking, drunken driving, littering and illegally parked cars when lots get full.

At Mom’s Beach, located down a narrow road lined by homes, those issues became so profound that parks officials banned alcohol there in 2015. Neighbors hailed the move as a significant improvement for the beach, formally known as Forestville River Access.

Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said the neighborhood around Steelhead Beach, barely 2 miles east on River Road, is now having “especially chronic” problems with “less than responsible behavior” from beachgoers.

Among the major problems, he said, are “exceptionally intoxicated” people returning to vehicles parked outside the designated parking area. They sometimes urinate on private property and often get behind the wheel of a car and drive away, to the chagrin of residents, he said.

“We’re trying to swing the pendulum a little,” Whitaker said.

New regulations involving commercial and charter buses are designed to address a growing problem over the last four or five years involving large groups of visitors coming from around the Bay Area to spend time at the beach or float down the river.

The bus drivers often find themselves awkwardly trying to find space to disgorge or pick up passengers in crowded parking lots or on neighborhood streets, blocking traffic while they do so.

Sometimes their occupants already have been drinking, “so they’re starting their float trip intoxicated,” Whitaker said.

Henceforth, bus operators will need advance reservations before dropping or picking up weekend passengers from Sunset and Steelhead, and only two bus reservations will be issued for parking lots at each beach on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

Park personnel have been contacting commercial bus companies that visit the parks to inform them of the new program and are advising them of alternate destinations, officials said.

“We’re blessed to have the Russian River running through Sonoma County. It’s a special destination for locals as well as visitors from all over Northern California,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the lower Russian River. “But our river parks and neighborhoods can’t sustain the crowds and partying that had become typical on summer weekends. These new rules will help protect the safety of our guests, our communities and our river.”

Park rangers and other law enforcement personnel patrolling park areas will ask anyone with opened alcohol containers to empty the contents and instruct those with unopened containers to return them to their vehicles.

Violations may lead to misdemeanor citations, court appearances and fines.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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