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DNR amends order to limit swimming on dangerous days at state park beaches

Grand Haven State Park.jpg
The order would give conservation officers and park rangers the authority to keep people out of the water on dangerous swimming days, with some exceptions. (WWMT/Will Haenni)

A land-use order from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to restrict water access at state beaches on dangerous swimming days now includes several clarifications.

The order would give conservation officers and park rangers the authority to keep people out of the water on dangerous swimming days, with some exceptions.

Amendments in the order clarified previously vague language in the order to outline situations in which the water might be closed to the public, which included but wasn't limited to the following scenarios:

  • When contamination or bacteria are present
  • If unsafe debris is washing ashore
  • A rescue or recovery effort is taking place
  • During severe weather events identified from the National Weather Service
  • When wave heights are identified in excess of 8 feet

The original proposal received criticism by those in the surfing community specifically, who feared they would no longer be allowed to surf on days with large waves. The amendments made it clear surfers and other board sports, such kiteboarding, body, or boogie, boarding with swim fins and skim-boarding, would be exempt during dangerous wave conditions.

The order said those that do partake in board sports will need to follow commonly accepted safety rules and procedures which include controlling boards at all times, using a safety leash and wearing appropriate cold weather gear as conditions dictate.

Tim Haadsma, a local surfer who frequents Grand Haven State Park, said he was relieved to hear the DNR put the surfing community's feedback into the revised order.

"They know there's a need to be a better way to protect the unknown beachgoer," Haadsma said. "So I'm excited for the conversations to come. I know this land use order is just a small piece."

DNR Parks and Recreations Chief Ron Olson said the order gives the department the ability to regulate someone on the land entering the water.

"This does not mean that if we triggered this the beach would automatically be closed and everybody would have to leave," Olson said. "It's just simply that if this got triggered we would ask people not to get in the water."

While Olson said the DNR's goal isn't to fine beachgoers, failure to adhere to the water closure would be punishable by a civil infraction and fine up to $500.

The amended order also means red flag conditions wouldn't prompt a water closure as some had interpreted unless wave heights reached 8 feet.

"Some people thought as soon as the red flags went up it would automatically trigger the closure, and that's not true," Olson said. "Now we said when the waves get near 8 feet that would likely trigger a closure, particularly in the designated swim area."

Without lifeguards on state operated beaches, Haadsma said surfers are often involved in water rescues or educating the visitors on dangerous conditions. He said the DNR should have the ability to limit water access to swimmers more on a case-by-case basis.

"They're saying 8 foot. The more common days where I've helped people out of the water, it's only 3 or 4 foot," Haadsma said. "It's just a matter of the currents under the water. A lot of times it's little kids. It doesn't even have to be very big to overtake a kid in the water."

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue project, as of July 30, 22 people had drowned on Lake Michigan so far in 2021. None of the incidents involved swimmers at Michigan state park beaches. The organization has kept tabs on 993 Great Lakes drownings since 2010, and said 2021 was on pace to be a record year.

The land-use order was expected to be posted on or after Aug. 12 following final approval by DNR Director Daniel Eichinger.

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