Las Vegas Sun

August 19, 2018

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Popular Laughlin river event resurfaces, aiming to leave a tidy wake

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Participants float along on the Colorado River as part of the Laughlin River Regatta Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. The popular event is returning this weekend after being canceled last year over concerns about trash left behind.

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Heaps of garbage floating in and around the Colorado River — littered plastic bottles, cans, life jackets, flip-flops and more — provided plenty of cringeworthy images for officials after the 2016 Laughlin River Regatta.

The mess from the record crowd of 31,000 for the celebration, where attendees float in tubes on the river for 13 miles, forced the Bullhead City Council to cancel the event last summer. But it returns Saturday with new organizers — and they have ramped up trash collection efforts.

Marnell Gaming, which owns Colorado Bell and Edgewater in Laughlin, paid $100,000 for rights to the event’s trademarks, social media accounts, website, logos and use of the land from Bullhead City, according to city documents. The group will be assisted by the regatta’s previous owners, with police officers from Bullhead City contributing to the daylong event.

The new organizers will employ more than four times as many trash-collecting resources than previous events, including staffers with nets and garbage bags to collect trash during the race and a slew of additional divers who will scour the river after the event for any remaining waste.

In three separate pre-trash collection dives from December to May, Marnell’s company has already collected and disposed of over three tons of trash. The regatta, which launched in 2007 with fewer than 500 participants, will be capped at 22,000 this year.

City Manager Toby Cotter said Bullhead City could permit the number to increase if the new owners prove they can successfully run the regatta without the mess left behind in 2016.

“To cancel this event after 10 years of success because it did get too big, I use the analogy it’s like canceling the Super Bowl because you can’t clean up the tailgate parties,” Marnell told the Mohave County Board of Supervisors in January.

The regatta brought between $16 million and $22 million in direct economic spending over the weekend to Laughlin and Bullhead City in 2016, per independent analyses conducted by Bullhead City-based economists. Its inception 12 years ago played a major role in salvaging the area’s then-flailing economy, Cotter said.

Now, thanks to the annual event, whose participants comprise more than 50 percent Southern Californians, 25 percent Las Vegans and thousands of residents from Utah and Arizona, Laughlin and Bullhead City are ripe for summer tourism.

“It has a polarizing effect, that’s for sure,” Cotter said. “The regatta showed the world that there is a beautiful asset here in Bullhead City and Laughlin in the Colorado River.”

In addition to garbage collection, new organizers will be tasked with improving the public image of the event, said Ryan Walker, Marnell Gaming’s senior vice president and general manager. While the trash infamously left behind at 2016’s event was “completely cleared” in just 12 hours, Bullhead City officials did not work to inform the public of its cleaning efforts, leaving the trash-filled area as most people’s last memory of the event.

The Colorado River, offered free of charge for residents and visitors to Laughlin and Bullhead City, is used — and trashed — on a daily basis, Walker said. The Regatta’s new organizers hope their cleanup efforts, not only during the event but throughout the year, will encourage eco-friendly practices and river cleanliness.

Event organizers are limiting the size of rafts to 12 feet and requiring the floats to be “commercially made” of items typically found at sporting goods stores. That’s instead of the massive plastic homemade rafts of years past, Walker said, which sometimes reached up to 50 feet and often fell apart during the regatta.

All attendees are also required to carry trash-collecting sacks with them while floating down the river — one of two mandatory items along with a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.