DNR adjusts rough weather swimming ban to carve out exception for board sports

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources on Friday changed an order that would ban swimming at state beaches on high-wave days. 

The modifications to Director Dan Eichinger's land use order clarify the conditions that would trigger a beach closure and make exceptions to the rule for surfers, kite-boarders and other boarders. The new rule could go into effect as early as Aug. 12. 

The changes were spurred by feedback from residents, who argued the DNR's initial rule was too vague and that it was punitive toward those whose chief water activities took place in rough, windy conditions. 

"We do have a public process and this is a result of us listening to them," said Ron Olson, the DNR's parks and recreation chief. "We wanted to make sure this order didn’t constrict things that were unintended.”

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

The DNR's original order would have banned entry into the water when it was "prohibited by signage and/or communication by a department employee or their designee." The purpose was to curb drownings at state beaches, particularly in west Michigan communities such as Holland and Grand Haven, where big waves and strong rip currents have taken visitors unawares.

But residents said in written comment and at a public meeting July 15 that the language of the order was too subjective and didn't give people a clear definition of when the beach would be closed. 

Surfers and kite-boarders also argued that it was likely the rough wave conditions triggering a closure would mean the end of their endeavors. 

The new order specifies that a department employee could prohibit entry to the beach "due to a human health and safety risk, including, but not limited to, contamination, unsafe debris washing ashore, rescue/recovery efforts, severe weather event identified from the National Weather Service, or identified wave height in excess of 8 feet."

"Prohibiting access would not be predicated upon the flying of a red flag alone -- but would be done after reviewing criteria to determine whether access should be restricted and the area of the access restriction," the DNR said in a memo to the Natural Resources Commission.

The new order states that the swimming prohibition would not apply to "board sport recreational individuals," including surfers, kiteboarders, boogie or body boarders with swim fins attached to their boards, skimboarders or individuals riding a short or long self-propelled wave riding board. 

Those individuals would be entering at their own risk, according to the order, and would need to follow general safety rules such as wearing appropriate cold weather gear and using a safety leash connecting them to their boards.

Olson said he believes the new order still accomplishes the goal of keeping individuals safe at public beaches. He said the DNR has been in communication with officials at Grand Haven, Holland and Ludington regarding the plan. 

He said state officials still agree that education about wave and rip current dynamics are also important in ensuring safety. 

"We believe that this is a help," Olson said. "It’s a tool that we can use.”