LA CROSSE, Wis. — It's time to party on Third Street. Music pulses from bars late into the night. Young women in shorts and halter tops hustle down the sidewalks. Guys in hot rods gun their engines and tear up the street.
A block away in Riverside Park, all is quiet. But just beyond the park, the Mississippi River rolls silent and black. Standing guard along the bank are four young men who traded the early spring bar scene for a night of keeping drunks on dry land.
It's another attempt to save lives in this river city, which has struggled for years to break a string of alcohol-related drownings. Since 1997, 10 college-age men, all with eye-popping blood-alcohol percentages, have died in La Crosse rivers. At least 20 other people have nearly drowned over the last decade, many of them after drinking.
Local leaders have tried passing new ordinances, but in a community where Wisconsin's love affair with booze is on full display, the memory of each drowning fades with the next round of shots, $1 beers and all-you-can-drink specials.
Finally, college students took it upon themselves to save their classmates. The effort dubbed Operation: River Watch has emerged as the city's most effective safety net.
"It's not the alcohol's fault," said Adam Bradley, a college senior who leads River Watch. "The alcohol has always been here. It's the people. Right now a good number (of people) don't want to take responsibility. ... Hopefully we can have some kind of impact on the fatalities."
La Crosse, a city of 51,000, stands in rugged bluff country about 140 miles southeast of the Twin Cities at the confluence of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse rivers. It's known for its natural beauty — and hard-core nightlife.
The annual Oktoberfest attracts drinkers from across the upper Midwest, and Third Street offers one bar after another. The scene is tailor-made for thousands of students who attend the city's three colleges, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College.
The area's heavy drinking culture is reflected in government data. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 percent of La Crosse County adults reported excessive drinking — defined as at least four drinks in a sitting for a woman and five for a man in a survey conducted between 2004 and 2010. That compares with 8 percent of adults nationally.
Drunken drownings aren't unique to La Crosse. Since January, four young men have turned up dead in waters around Wisconsin after drinking. But nowhere else in the state have the deaths happened with such regularity. At one point, La Crosse residents were so alarmed they worried a serial killer was stalking young intoxicated men. It took assurances from the FBI to convince them the drownings were simply alcohol-fueled accidents.
The city outlawed public drunkenness and required anyone buying a keg of beer to register with authorities. But when UW-La Crosse basketball player Luke Homan become the eighth drowning victim in 2006, then-Mayor Mark Johnsrud said he wasn't sure what more could be done.
Days after Homan's death, the UW-La Crosse Student Senate presented plans for a student safety patrol in Riverside Park. All three campuses endorsed the plan, and the city agreed to bolster the effort with police cadet patrols in the park. Downtown tavern owners raised money for the effort.
The Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity took over the operation in 2007. A mix of fraternity members, other students, volunteers and cadets have patrolled the park on weekends for roughly the last five years.
Records show the patrol intercepted nearly 1,300 people in the park after hours last year. Police cadets encountered nearly 3,600 people between 2009 and 2011, although it's not clear in either figure how many were intoxicated.
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