Lacking Pools, Residents May Crowd Dangerous Beaches

Andy Berg Headshot

With many public pools closed in Wisconsin, people will likely head to beaches along the Great Lakes to cool off this summer. That could spell trouble.

As local governments in the Badger State struggle with budget shortfalls, hiring lifeguards for public beaches is low on the priority list. Meanwhile, water levels this year on Lake Michigan are high, which makes for bigger waves and stronger rip currents.

There were 97 drownings on the Great Lakes last year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — roughly half on Lake Michigan — and a record 117 in 2018.

"It's kind of the perfect storm for Great Lakes drownings," said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. "Higher water levels, smaller beaches, more people on the beach, it's easy to lose track of your children on a crowded beach." 

Benjamin said cancelling lifeguards has been a huge setback.

In Milwaukee County, a total of nine outdoor pools won’t open this year. A fully staffed Bradford Beach on Lake Michigan would require 14 lifeguards, working seven days a week for 10 weeks, at a total cost of $70,000.

The area is currently suffering a lifeguard shortage, which is compounded by the fact that lifeguards this year weren’t able to be trained, as most pools were closed.

"As well as the financial impacts of the pandemic, it's also impacted our ability to run the training sessions for lifeguards as indoor pools have been closed," Everett said.

Jamie Racklyeft, executive director of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, says the Great Lakes are a completely different environment than the local pool.

"The Great Lakes are great equalizers. They don't care if you're short or tall, young or old, male or female, black or white," Racklyeft, who almost drowned in a rip current in Lake Michigan in 2012 but was saved by two kayakers, told the Sentinel.

The Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium has scheduled seven virtual one-hour town hall meetings, with topics ranging from balancing the risks of drowning with the risk of coronavirus infection to the impact of high water levels on public safety.

"There's a lot of factors in play this year that we haven't seen before," Racklyeft said. "People have been cooped up in their homes for months, they're getting stir crazy, they want to head to the beach and have a purely Wisconsin day."

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