PARTY POOPER

NOT EVEN MTV AND THOUSANDS OF DRUNKEN KIDS CAN TURN WASTE-TAINTED LAKE HAVASU INTO A SPRING-BREAK MECCA

Nothing that's happened in Lake Havasu City since March 13--the official beginning of spring break, MTV-style--came as much of a surprise to anyone. That's not to say things were uneventful, though.

A miniriot took place on the beach after shots were fired in a confrontation between a pistol-packing spring-breaker and a group of skinheads.

There was the apparent drowning of a Scottsdale man after the houseboat he inhabited collided with another, throwing him into the water.

A waterfront hotel lost some furniture when kids decided they needed a bonfire on the beach.

And a single-engine plane developed engine trouble and had to land on Highway 95 near town.

And, of course, there is the trash. It is in the eerie, hung-over quiet of morning that the damage becomes most apparent. Despite the efforts of lionhearted sanitation crews--which venture along its length twice a day--the beach is a constant mess. Every square foot of sand is covered with something:

Crumpled beer cans and cigarette packs.
Used condoms.
Half-empty cans of Easy Cheese.
Hotel furniture scraps.
Torn-off bikini tops.

In any other smallish, snowbird-packed Arizona town, death, fire, airplanes plunging from the heavens and extreme environmental degradation might spook the natives. But not here. Here, most people look at the deal that brought MTV to Havasu--a deal that all but invited broad-scale havoc--as a needed boost to the city's image, not the end of life as they know it.

Most of the service workers who populate this area full-time--and even winter-only residents--are willing to hold their noses and smile for the cameras. With a few vocal exceptions, everyone seems to feel that Doritos-fueled, Budweiser-drenched, hormone-driven, televised bacchanalia is just what a town with fecal coliform problems needs.

And maybe it is. Maybe--just maybe--Lake Havasu City and MTV are greedy and tasteless enough to be made for each other.

Lake Havasu City was designed by C.B. Wood Jr., whose most famous other creation was Disneyland. Wood was commissioned by Robert P. McCullogh (of McCullogh chain saw and outboard-motor fame) to design on the banks of the dammed-up Colorado River a playland of huge and profitable proportions.

Of course, it never actually became huge, and there were too many retirees and snowbirds for it to qualify as a playland, but eventually, Lake Havasu City did become and remain reasonably profitable.

Until last year.
As hotel owners and chamber of commerce types tell it, one more summer like the last one and the town would have been finished. That type of fear may account for the speak-no-evil pose many locals strike when asked about last summer's problem. The pollution problem, that is.

"Don't ever use the 'p' word," one local business owner says. "That's what the chamber of commerce people told us."

The chamber also reportedly told locals not to use the "t" word, either. "Turd."

Tourist-based business owners say the town's economy was decimated last year by reports of turds washing up on the normally pristine Havasu beaches. In fact, elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, rather than actual clumps of human waste, were found in the lake. But it may as well have been turds.

Two of the lake's busiest beaches, the very beaches on which drunken kids now cavort, had to be closed. No broken sewer pipe or other sewage-treatment problem was found at Havasu, and both local and state water experts have been puzzling ever since about what caused the problem. The bacteria levels are lower now, but nobody knows for how long.

The front pages of the town's two newspapers over the past few months give a good idea of how seriously locals take the situation.

"Answer to bacteria hidden in fruit?" one recent headline asked. The accompanying story posited that the town's water woes could be solved by an extract of grapefruit seeds, massive amounts of which could be dumped into the affected waters.

Other possible fixes:
"Good" bacteria that will eat the "bad" bacteria.
Large amounts of salt placed on stricken beaches.
Prayer.

For the past two weeks, the Havasu air had been electric with anticipation, as the coliform-transfixed populace awaited results of a NASA overflight of the lake. Space-age technology to the rescue.

But NASA and fruit and salt all have to do with the "p" word and the "t" word. The Lake Havasu Visitor and Convention Bureau is interested in the "m" word. The type of m that lots of well-heeled visitors and conventioneers bring.

So last month, the bureau hired B.J. Communications, a Phoenix public relations firm, to help restore Lake Havasu City's sullied image. No final price tag has been set, but the PR campaign is expected to cost a lot of m. Something like $300,000.

But money alone can't buy enough PR to save Lake Havasu City, and canny local movers and shakers know it.

That's where MTV and spring break come in.

When some local residents expressed shock at their city fathers' efforts to lure MTV to Havasu, they were told to relax: MTV's spring-break activities would be the calmest and best-controlled of the season. Mayor Dick Hileman pledged his efforts to help kids "party smart," and was quoted in the local press as saying that he didn't want to "send any more kids home in caskets."

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