When it comes to new laws, Texas usually saves its bewilderment for ones from Washington. But this scorching summer, it’s a single city ordinance on the popular Guadalupe River that is stirring frustration and confusion.
So, just to clear things up: Boozing while tubing is still legal.
Drinking beer while lazily floating through New Braunfels is a heat-beating tradition for hundreds of thousands of vacationers each summer, but turnout is down and businesses say the reason is clear: a new ban on disposable containers that has heightened tension between businesses reliant on tourism dollars and residents weary of rowdy partygoers who leave behind truckloads of trash.
The so-called can ban doesn’t prohibit alcohol, but that message hasn’t been sticking.
“People are calling saying, ‘You can’t drink in New Braunfels, so why am I coming?'” said Shane Wolf, general manager of Rockin’ R River Outfitters, the city’s dominant tube rental company.
Beer and liquor are still allowed on the river if poured into reusable containers, and neon plastic Chug-a-Mugs that hold up to three beers are now ubiquitous. But while the New Braunfels Convention and Visitors Bureau has yet to release figures, director Judy Young concedes that business has been slower since the ban.
It doesn’t take data to see the effects. At one Rockin’ R store this week, Ross Purdy stared quizzically at a cold six-pack of Miller Lite in one hand and a $20 empty plastic “Bubba Keg” in the other.
“So will all this fit in here? Is this what we’re supposed to use?” Purdy, 40, said aloud to himself, before again scanning the store coolers for his options.
After a few seconds of uncertainty, he gave up and went to the cash register for help.
“No one understands it,” the cashier said glumly.
Local businesses hope that a new city marketing campaign will clarify the ordinance, although it will barely stem their indignation. Fifty-eight percent of New Braunfels voters approved the can ban, not swayed by hotel owners and river outfitters who warned that a can ban would sock the local economy.
Prevailing instead was a campaign that on its face was about curbing litter and environmental stewardship of the Guadalupe and Comal rivers. But motivating a not insignificant bloc of the city’s 58,000 residents was an appetite to clamp down on what many saw as an alcohol-fueled floating frat party with public nudity, sex, fights and loud music.
Finishing a can of Bud Light in a parking lot before heading into the water where it’s verboten, Dana Austin said that at 24, he doesn’t mind the rowdiness. But he said he supports the law’s environmental aims after years of watching tubers chuck cans into the river and along the banks.
“You’d see a frat boy floating up a little bit ahead of you, and they’d sort of do a free throw into the woods,” Austin said.
The Guadalupe and Comal rivers are among the state’s most visited natural attractions, and tubing is the bedrock of local tourism that pumps $469 million each year into the New Braunfels economy, according to Young. But the last three years have been a bumpy ride: Massive flooding in 2010 demolished buildings and buses of river outfitters, and last year’s historic Texas drought left tubers scraping against rocks in shallow water.
As far as trash and rowdiness go, can ban backers are already claiming victory. City data show that 1,800 pounds of litter was collected in and around the river in May — about 15 percent of the amount that had to be cleaned up in May last year.
Other unruly behavior also seems to be on the downturn. New Braunfels police Capt. Michael Penshorn said that on a recent June weekend, police patrolling the river issued 26 citations and arrested four people on charges ranging from minors in possession to public intoxication. On the same weekend last year, police wrote 42 citations and made 17 arrests.
Mike Kubelka, 50, patted his wet bathing suit with a towel before driving back to College Station with his two kids after they practically had the whole Guadelupe to themselves on a slow Monday. Now that he’s a parent, Kubelka said, he doesn’t mind seeing less beer on the river.
“But,” he said, “it gets kind of long out there with nothing to drink.”