Surfers, kite-boarders oppose Michigan's proposed high-wave swimming ban

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Okemos — Surfers, kite boarders, body surfers and other water enthusiasts urged the Department of Natural Resources on Thursday to reconsider an order that could inhibit their access to the water on high wind and wave days. 

Instead, officials should focus on education, signage and lifeguards to better protect Great Lakes swimmers, especially visitors unfamiliar with lakes' waves and currents, they argued.

Or make exceptions for sports such as surfing, kite boarding or kayaking.

Nearly a dozen people spoke out against the effect it would have on wind and wave sports. There were no public comments in support of the proposed policy.

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

"Good intentions do not always lead to good decisions," said Ken Gothman, a Great Lakes kite boarder. Gothman called the proposal a "draconian solution" and said the state should be prepared for litigation.

"We would like to know what the data and science is to warrant such a solution," he said. 

Eric Little, a Great Lakes kite surfer, said most water enthusiasts support measures to keep people safe. But, he said, "this isn't the way to handle it, to steal everybody’s freedom to enjoy these Great Lakes.”

Nicholas Occhipinti of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters expressed concerns about maintaining public access to public waters as well as the efficacy of the proposal.

The intent to protect swimmers is good, Occhipinti said, but "it’s a blunt instrument to deal with that intent.”

Commissioners, who have no final say over the new order, also expressed concern about the impact the order would have on wind and wave activities among those experienced with the Great Lakes wave and current dynamics.

"There should be some clarity to make sure we’re not negatively impacting those who are well prepared," said Keith Creagh, a commissioner and former DNR director.

A kite boarder get some big air off Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township, Michigan on May 25, 2021.

Commissioner David Nyberg commended the department for looking at ways to better protect the public but noted that other, more advanced notice systems could be used to better inform swimmers of conditions.

"I offer that up as a potential solution to the department to maybe provide alerts or notifications to those who are accessing Great Lakes beaches," Nyberg said. A more advanced alert system, he said, "may be a way to mitigate some of the limits on public access.”

Thursday's meeting marked the first opportunity for public comment on the order which could become effective as soon as Aug. 12. 

The proposed order would prevent 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."

Nicole Hunt, of the DNR's parks and recreation division, told commissioners the order could be used to close portions of the beach, leaving some area for those seeking to surf or swim in other areas.

"This land use order would really be a tool to assist staff when there are safety concerns we’ve been made aware of," said Hunt.

Current department rules only recommend swimmers stay on the beach on "Red Flag" days, when wave height is between 3 and 5 feet or higher and water conditions are deemed dangerous. 

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

DNR Director Dan Eichinger, who was not present at Thursday's meeting, is issuing the order — rather than going through Legislature or through a longer rule-making process — under authority granted to him by state law. 

Park and recreation officers' power does not extend into the water itself, which is why the department is banning people from exiting the beach for the purpose of swimming. 

Officials have said drownings at West Michigan beaches, particularly in Holland and Grand Haven on Lake Michigan, and unsafe entries into the water by visitors prompted the development of the rules.

Through Thursday, this year there have been 40 drownings on the Great Lakes; 19 occurred on Lake Michigan, eight on Lake Huron, seven on Lake Erie and six on Lake Ontario, according to data from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. The total drownings include an increase of six over the last week.

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.