Michigan seeks to ban swimming at state beaches in high-wave conditions

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A proposed Michigan order set to take effect in August would ban swimming at state-managed beaches in rough wave conditions in a bid to stem drowning deaths. 

The proposed ban has support from some Lake Michigan officials who have struggled to increase safety at public beaches, but has triggered hesitation from a leading conservation club group that fears the order may encourage state officials to limit other forms of public access. 

Michigan United Conservation Clubs alerted its members to the proposed change last week and immediately began receiving feedback on its Facebook page, with most comments being negative.

Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger proposed the order to the Natural Resources Commission in June in an effort to increase public safety at state beaches, particularly on "Red Flag" days, when wave height is between 3 and 5 feet or higher and water conditions are deemed dangerous. 

Beach-goers fill Grand Haven State Park and City Beach during a heat wave in July 2020. A proposed rule would allow the DNR to ban accessing the water from state beaches during times of high risk. Presently, the state only issues warnings.

Current department rules only recommend swimmers stay on the beach and avoid swimming when a red flag is flying. There is no enforcement mechanism currently in place. 

The proposed order will be up for public comment at Thursday's Natural Resources Commission in Okemos and final action is expected Aug. 12. While the commission is being used to facilitate public comment, Eichinger will have the final say on whether the order is finalized. 

Eichinger's proposed order prevents people in state parks and recreation areas from exiting "the state managed beach area for the purpose of entry into the water when entry is prohibited by signage and/or communication by a department employee or their designee."

Violations of the order would earn a swimmer a state civil infraction and fine up to $500.

Order a new tool for beach safety

Under the new order, entry could be prohibited on a Red Flag day or in other circumstances where hazardous swimming conditions exist, said Ron Olson, the DNR's parks and recreation chief. 

"We want to have an ability to legally close the beach, particularly when we believe the conditions are unsuitable to go in," Olson said. 

By preventing people from "exiting" the area rather than banning swimming outright, the department sidesteps some jurisdictional issues that arise because park and recreation officers' authority is land-based and does not apply in the water itself. The Great Lakes shoreline is considered held in public trust under a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling.

The proposed order has been under consideration for a few years, Olson said, especially concerning Lake Michigan state beaches in Holland and Grand Haven, where a prevailing west wind can lead to strong rip currents. While the rip currents aren't new, larger beach crowds and recent higher water levels have elevated safety concerns, he said. 

"We’re getting lots and lots of people coming," Olson said. "When the crowds get really big, we have to have the tools to provide a clean, safe, park experience.”

Emergency crews search for an individual who was reportedly washed off the North Pier and into Lake Michigan Thursday, July 8, 2021, in St. Joseph.

Through Friday, this year there have been 34 drownings on the Great Lakes; 16 occurred on Lake Michigan, six on Lake Huron, six on Lake Erie and six on Lake Ontario, according to data from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

The group tracked 108 drownings in 2020, including 56 on Lake Michigan, two on Lake Superior, 11 on Lake Huron, 19 on Lake Erie and 21 on Lake Ontario.  

The DNR tracks drowning statistics but doesn't break them out for the Great Lakes, Olson said, meaning they also reflect drownings in inland lakes, rivers and pools.

The DNR in a June 18 memo to the Natural Resources Commission argued the order was needed because people were still entering the water on red flag days.

"Meaning people are not adhering to the water safety measures and education provided by the department and are still entering the water," the DNR memo said. "Even more alarming is the observations of people entering the water during these dangerous conditions while a water rescue is occurring." 

Eichinger is using a land use order allowed under the 1994 Natural Resources Environmental Protection Act to put the policy in place instead of the 1969 Administrative Procedures Act usually used to develop agency rules. The APA process can take months to complete.

Swimmers are warned of rip currents along the shores of Lake Michigan at Holland State Park. Bob Pratt of Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project says the north-south wind patterns along the parallel shores of Lake Michigan increases waves and creates treacherous waters.

The DNR said land use orders, and public input through the Natural Resources Commission, are typically used to develop similar changes such as new alcohol rules at a state park or new drone regulations on public land. 

"We believe this process allows for ample public input from people who have an interest in natural resource management," department spokesman Ed Golder said.  

Swimming rule gets mixed reception

The order was welcome news for Pat McGinnis, city manager for Grand Haven, which runs a city beach immediately south of the state beach and models its swimming rules after the state's.

In October, McGinnis plans to meet with leaders of several Lake Michigan cities to brainstorm ways to increase safety on public beaches, piers and swimming areas and present recommendations to lawmakers in Lansing. 

Many of the drownings in Grand Haven occur among out-of-towners unfamiliar with the rip currents along the Lake Michigan coast, McGinnis said. But it is Grand Haven's first responders, along with state and federal rescuers, who sit with the families while they wait for a loved one's body to be recovered, he said. 

"We would think that it's very important to have significant messaging and penalty behind it because we have experienced the outcome of not following those rules," McGinnis said.

Opponents argue the proposal goes too far. The language of the order is overly broad without specifics relating to location, conditions or resources determining a beach closure, MUCC Executive Director Amy Trotter said. For example, the group worries the order's language would prohibit wading in shallow waters on a hot day, or stop  hunters from entering the water to retrieve a duck. 

The order also could deter surfers or tourists from making a decision based on weather to travel to a beach if they'll be barred from swimming.

Trotter recognized the safety concerns that drove the policy, but she questioned whether the DNR was even properly staffed to enforce such a rule.

"It’s a big hammer, perhaps, where a smaller, more personalized approach may be necessary," she said. 

Traverse City Republican state Sen. Wayne Schmidt said more education is needed about how to swim in the Great Lakes, particularly if someone is caught in a rip current. But he acknowledged the lessons are difficult to convey to people new to a given beach or wave dynamic. 

"That’s a challenge," Schmidt said. He said he supports the order on some conditions. 

"I think the key will be on the enforcement side," he said. "One, do we have the people to enforce it? And, two, is it going to be more of an education moment?"

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

How to make public comments: Attend Thursday's 9 a.m. Natural Resources Commission meeting at the Okemos Conference Center, Comfort Inn Okemos, 2187 University Park Drive, Okemos, MI 48864. Or submit written comments to the commission at nrc@michigan.gov or Natural Resources Commission, P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, MI 48909.