Some accidents have persisted. Since River Watch began, two college-age men have drowned after drinking, although both went into the Mississippi outside Riverside Park.
The cadets and River Watch patrollers aren't trained rescuers. If they encounter a situation they can't handle, they call for help. Police credit River Watch and the cadets with helping with nearly 10 rescues between 2007 and 2011.
One of the most harrowing came last June, when a cadet saw a 42-year-old Minnesota man jump into the Mississippi. Sheriff's Deputy John Williams responded and jumped in after him, but both got caught in the current. The man climbed on top of Williams, pushing him under, and a boater had to rescue both of them. The man's blood-alcohol content was 0.20 percent — more than twice the legal limit for driving.
"He just had a look on his face. Just completely terrified. He thought he was done," Williams said.
On a recent March evening, Bradley and three friends encountered eight people shortly after the park closed. All of them left without incident.
The group spent the next few hours trudging around in a drizzle. Bradley passed time by musing on why drunks keep falling in the river, concluding that many are so blitzed they don't know where they are. He once encountered a man who thought the Mississippi was Lake Michigan.
Mayor Matt Harter, not far removed from college himself at age 27, called River Watch a "positive" tool. Still, he downplayed the binge drinking culture, saying alcohol habits in La Crosse are no different than elsewhere. The CDC survey bears that out. More than half of Wisconsin counties have an excessive drinking rate as high or higher than La Crosse County's.
"The geography is different," the mayor said. "If we had a parking lot there instead of a river, (the drownings) wouldn't have happened."
Health advocates are still working to change people's attitudes. A "College Survival Tips" poster hanging on the UW-La Crosse student center wall warns people to "Avoid Partying Too Hard." A coalition of hospitals, addiction specialists and the colleges has spent more than $500,000 on programs to discourage binge drinking. Last year, police took 62 people to detox facilities, the first year since 2007 they transported fewer than 120.
"We're trying," said Sue Danielson, Viterbo's health services director. "But Wisconsin's a tough state. Look, we can't even get the beer tax increased since the '60s. We have a drowning, and people say we have to do this, this and this. But after a year, it's out of your memory and things get lax."
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