Banning lake access is a state overreach
Michigan residents have spent much of the last 16 months under top-down, blanket orders meant to protect their safety through restrictions. Apparently, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s example of ruling by fiat.
The DNR is proposing to ban swimmers and recreationalists from entering the water during high-risk days. But the DNR’s proposed order, set to take effect next month, would strip recreationalists and swimmers of access to the Great Lakes and other state water areas without adequately addressing the root causes of drownings.
Adventurers who relish high wind and water days, such as kite boarders and surfers, would be outlawed from accessing the water during prime conditions. Those who disobey the order would be subject to fines up to $500 and the threat of a state civil infraction.
Undoubtedly, the DNR has good intentions. The rule would prevent beachgoers from entering “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.”
As critics have rightfully pointed out, this order is draconian and poses issues for public access to the Great Lakes, which should remain free to all.
And the order may not even do that much to change the number of drownings, says Chris Houser, dean of science at the University of Windsor and author of a study showing COVID-19 caused an uptick in drownings last year.
“It seems there could be a lot more to be done with respect to safety education,” Houser says.
Houser questions the regional approach to designating red-flag days, arguing it spans large swaths of lakefront and may not really indicate the weather conditions at specific beaches.
Shutting down whole regions could make swimmers skeptical of the warning’s veracity for their particular beach and tempt them to get in.
Since the DNR would only be able to give citations on state land, this could incentivize thwarted beachgoers to enter waters where there are no lifeguards or safety measures in place to protect them.
State officials should instead invest in hiring more lifeguards and give them wider discretion to make condition warnings beach by beach, and the state could focus on educating residents about the risks of riptides and currents at all beaches.
Swimmers and recreationalists need to be careful when enjoying our Great Lakes. In 2020, 108 people drowned.
People enjoying the lakes should consider the risk to their own lives as well as the lives of those who may try to save them.
For these reasons, recreationalists should think twice before getting in the water with high waves and wind, especially those who are inexperienced in the Great Lakes.
The DNR should be commended for trying to protect lives, but its proposed blanket ban is unlikely to lower drownings while imposing heavy burdens on those who find enjoyment in the high wind and waves.
The department should send the proposed order back to the drawing board.