Public drunkenness and disorder had begun to dominate UC Davis' Picnic Day so much that the nearly century-old event was in jeopardy of being shut down.
The school will still hold its 99th celebration Saturday, with the official open house featuring its usual mix of animal exhibits, concerts, dance performances and a popular campus parade. More than 200 events are scheduled.
But UC Davis has scaled down its promotion of this year's event to reduce turnout, focusing more on students and alumni and less on the larger community.
"There's a recognition that if it gets too big, it ceases to be a good experience for anyone," said UC Davis spokeswoman Claudia Morain. "We're hoping it's a low-key event."
More than 80,000 people attended last year's event, said UC Davis police, and some suggest the large turnout is to blame for the excessive drinking, rowdiness and fights that have marked recent Picnic Days.
"In recent years, Picnic Day has changed. What used to be a small, community-oriented weekend has grown into an event that draws thousands from the surrounding region," reads the Greek Picnic Day Covenant, a pledge by campus fraternities and sororities to promote a safer Picnic Day. "Large crowds, binge drinking, and out-of-control parties are the result."
The university event was marred in recent years by alcohol-related incidents and arrests. In 2011, the disorder was punctuated by the death of a UC Davis graduate at an off-campus party.
Police were busy at last year's event, with much of the trouble occurring off-campus and downtown. Law enforcement arrested 53 people downtown and cited 150 others. Many were cited for public intoxication, urinating in public or for carrying open containers of alcohol.
On campus and in town, people are working to make this year's spring ritual safer and more family-friendly.
"We've been working all year with city officials, police and campus organizations," said Picnic Day vice chairman and UC Davis senior Kevin Hadidjaja. "Now as the day is getting closer, all of the organizations are aware of what our responsibilities are."
Davis last year expanded a "Safety Enhancement Zone" covering a wide swath of the downtown area in which violators face higher fines. The zone is bordered by Eighth Street to the north, Anderson Road to the west, the railroad tracks to the east and First Street to the south.
Violators in that zone will pay as much as $480 - more than twice the minimum $239 fee elsewhere in the city. Targeted offenses include public intoxication, public urination and smoking in designated nonsmoking areas.
Police will patrol on foot, on bicycles and in cruisers, said Davis police Lt. Paul Doroshov.
They will have help from Yolo County sheriff's deputies; Winters, Woodland and West Sacramento police; the California Highway Patrol; state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents; and state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers.
"We'll have a lot of officers downtown on foot. They're more approachable that way," Doroshov said. "We're deploying a lot of officers throughout the day."
Campus police are using social media to implore residents and revelers to be watchful and to alert authorities to trouble.
"See Something! Say Something!" reads a UC Davis Police Department tweet.
Meanwhile, downtown's bars, restaurants and nightspots and the university's fraternities and sororities each have signed pledges to rein in drinking and alcohol sales.
In the "Picnic Day Greek covenant," fraternity and sorority members vow not to provide alcohol before noon and refrain from drinking games and advertising that promotes Picnic Day as a drinking event. They also promise to encourage using designated drivers and taxis and provide adequate supervision and security.
Downtown businesses have signed a similar pledge, vowing not to serve alcoholic beverages before 11 a.m. on Picnic Day, promote drink specials that could encourage overdrinking or use advertising that promotes Picnic Day as a drinking party.
"It's one of our highest priorities," Hadidjaja said. "There is an increased police presence that will guarantee safety. We're promoting it as a family-friendly event instead of a citywide drinking contest."
Call The Bee's Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.