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County focuses on river safety

While recreational boaters or those fishing off the banks of the lower Deschutes River may not notice a big difference, the face of local law enforcement on the river is undergoing a change this month that will give the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department more bang for their buck when it comes to public safety.

In partnership with Parks, the Wasco County Sheriff’s Department is dedicating a full-time, year-round deputy to patrol the Lower Deschutes River and provide an increased level of law enforcement to the area.

Deputy Gavin Marble of the Sheriff’s Department brings both prior patrol experience and a working familiarity with the river from his former service as a marine deputy. As the newly designated Parks deputy, he will be patrolling the lower 95 miles of the Deschutes River, covering territory within the borders of Jefferson, Sherman and Wasco counties.

“Of the three counties, we have the most area to cover,” Chief Deputy Lane Magill told The Chronicle in a recent interview, “so it was decided that we would take the lead in providing law enforcement services in the area under the new contract.”

Parks’ boater pass program funds the program. It was implemented in 1985 to ensure that a limited number of recreational users would be allowed to float the lower river at a given time for a standard fee. Today, the fee averages about $8 per person.

“The money generated from the program is used for a number of things,” Magill said, “one of which is public safety and law enforcement.”

“We’re one of the main players that worked to get a river management plan in place over 20 years ago,” said Chris Parkins, district manager at the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “The entire system is designed to maintain the integrity of the Deschutes as both a national resource and a place to recreate. Without this contract and the hard work of other law enforcement agencies, all the work that’s been done to protect the river would go to waste.”

According to Magill, Marble will be charged with the same duties “as any other patrol deputy,” including the enforcement of traffic laws, fire restrictions, DUIs and monitoring any other criminal activity with the additional responsibility of making sure all those present on the river are there lawfully and while in possession of a boater’s pass.

Though he is no longer a county marine deputy, Marble will still be able to cite boating violators if he comes across them.

However, boating safety and inspections will not be his primary focus, Magill explained, as those responsibilities still fall under the jurisdiction of the county’s existing seasonal marine deputy, who will continue to patrol the river focusing on water and boating issues five months out of the year.

Wasco County is taking over the Parks contract from the Oregon State Police, which has provided the service since the late 1980s.

The 2-year contract, amounting to about $250,000, Parkins said, paid for two seasonal troopers to check passes and enforce Parks regulations during peak seasons.

However, during negotiations last year, State Police proposed to increase the rate to $300,000.

The request for additional funds was made because the state police could not provide a full position for Parks for the same amount they had historically received and the existing arrangement did not enable them to collect from other potential funding sources, according to Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division Director Capt. Jeff Samuels. However, their proposal to increase the funding to the amount necessary to pay for such a dedicated position was denied.

“The number was just too high for us,” Chris Parkins, said. “I think we get about $500,000 every two years to do all of the other things we do—staffing someone at the mouth of the river, public education, routine maintenance — so within that, we just couldn’t feasibly take law enforcement up the amount they requested.”

Discussions with state and local law enforcement agencies began in June 2013. After Wasco County agreed later that fall to shoulder the responsibility, Parks started negotiating the new deal with the county.

The five and a half-year contract, set at $130,000 per year, will pay for the year-round deputy position, including benefits and any necessary training or equipment, along with additional overtime enabling other deputies to provide seasonal law enforcement support on peak weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“So, if anything, coverage on the river will be increasing simply because the sheriff’s department can do more with the money we have,” Parkins said. “Essentially, we asked Wasco County to show us what they’d be able to do within our old budget for the state police and, as it turns out, we’ll actually get more bang for our buck.”

Marble will serve for two years of the five and a half-year contract before the responsibility will rotate to another deputy, Magill said.

“It’s a 100 percent commitment by the Wasco County Sheriff’s office that Deputy Marble will not be pulled off the river, with the exception of a call regarding a major safety issue,” he said. “We feel it’s important for the people that contribute to the boater pass fund to get exactly what it’s designed to pay for: public safety on the lower Deschutes River.”

Marble began his new patrol duties June 7 along the Deschutes, so the transition should be completed sometime in July, Parkins said.

Lt. Pat Shortt of The Dalles area command of the Oregon State Police said the change marks “a shift in our priorities away from things State Parks would have paid us to do on the river in the past. What our focus will be now is mainly fish and wildlife and resource management. If the sheriff’s office needs help down there or if there’s a call that requires additional officers, we’ll be more than happy to lend a hand. We will still work very closely and the change will have no bearing on our working relationship at all.”

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