Fewer lifeguards fuel Minn. parents' water-safety concerns

Beaches across the state are increasingly going without lifeguards.
Beaches across the state are increasingly going without lifeguards. Here, an empty guards' chair on Carey Lake in Hibbing, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2011

When a 5-year-old boy drowned at a Woodbury beach last weekend, there wasn't a lifeguard around.

That's the case at swimming spots around the state. Minnesota beaches are increasingly going without lifeguards, which means parents and other adults need to know how to keep children safe around the water.

"The trends in that most waterfronts, whether it be lakes or rivers, state parks, some of the bigger county parks do not have lifeguards on duty," Woodbury Park and Recreation Director Bob Klatt said. "Whereas if you're at pay facilities, it's typically the case that there are lifeguards there."

Carver Lake, where the boy drowned, used to be lifeguarded, Klatt said. But in 2009, it was converted from a fenced-in, paid facility to a free area.

Klatt said that was partly a budget decision for the city — entrance fees weren't covering the cost of lifeguards. However, he said beach usage has increased since cutting the fees.

Woodbury doesn't plan to change the no-lifeguard practice, Klatt said, and it isn't alone.

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Minneapolis parks and recreation has lifeguards at eight of its 12 beaches.

Playing at Lake Nokomis beach
Melissa Odenbach of Minneapolis played with her son Kai at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2015

Three Rivers Park District discontinued beach lifeguards in 2002 for budget reasons, a spokesperson said, and it doesn't plan to bring the guards back either.

But for some parents, lifeguarding shouldn't be about the money.

"Having a lifeguard out here wouldn't be that much of an expense really," said parent Cory Albert, "and I think the funding could be there and I don't see why it's not."

One recent day, Albert took his daughters to Carver Lake to swim near the posted signs reading, "Swim at your own risk." He made them wear arm floaties, which he said is a must for safety.

Still, he said he wishes there was extra protection at the beach. "I think there should be a lifeguard here, especially because it's kind of remote, it takes a little while to get to, and it would be safer if there was someone obviously here."

On the other end of the beach, Shiloh Clamons disagreed, saying that lifeguards' rules can be "ridiculous."

Clamons, a daycare provider, noted that she's watching her kids, too.

"If there's a lifeguard or not a lifeguard, it's always the responsibility of the adult that brings the child to always have an eye on the child that's swimming," she said.

However, Clamons said it bothers her that not everyone has the same access she did to learning about water safety.

Clamons grew up in Minnesota. But families who are new arrivals to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees may not have experience with lakes and beaches.

A recent USA Swimming Foundation study of five southern U.S. cities found wide disparities in swimming ability by race and income level.

For anyone taking care of kids in the water, Three Rivers Park District media specialist Tom Knisely has a simple tip: watch them.

Choking on water is like choking on food, Knisley said. Drowning victims can't talk, Knisley said, so you need to watch — not just listen.

"Drowning is silent. People have this impression that it's like in the movies, 'Help me, help me I'm drowning I'm drowning,' and that they'll be able to hear whether their child is in distress or not. That's not the way it happens."