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Who pays to prevent drownings?

Morgan Springer
A sign at Bryant Park in Traverse City warns swimmers of drowning danger.


Grand Traverse County could be forced to decide whether to spend $1 million to fix Easling Pool in the next year. Financial concerns about the only public pool in the area have sparked debate about whether water safety is the county’s responsibility.

There are plenty of places to swim up north, but until recently school kids didn’t get any water safety training. Now the county might get out of that business.

Swim lessons necessary in the Great Lakes state

Swim lessons are offered year round at the county’s Easling Pool.  The pool teaches roughly 650 people how to swim every year. Joshua Gooden is there because he wants his nine year-old son to learn to swim. 

“We’ve had quite a few drownings even just in the last few years with people who were said to be good strong swimmers," says Gooden.

Gooden figures water safety is a big deal in northern Michigan.

“It’s a major part of life around here,” he says. “I could see if we lived in say Arizona, water safety might not be such a big issue because you’re in a desert. Here it should be right up there with fire safety and gun safety and hunting safety because we've got the sportsman and the outdoors thing going around here, too. It’s pretty major. Top three, I would say.”

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks drowning as the second-leading cause of accidental deaths for children.

What schools are missing

Dave Benjamin, executive director of Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, agrees with Gooden that water safety should be a top priority. He just doesn’t think it’s enough of a priority in schools yet.

“When we look at safety measures in America in schools, they have fire drills, tornado drills, school shooter drills," says Benjamin. "And unfortunately, more school age children are going to die drowning each year than in fires, tornadoes, school shooters, and earthquakes combined the United States. So why don’t we have a water safety school curriculum?”

Benjamin’s project focuses on drownings in the Great Lakes, but lately it’s been inland lake drownings that have shifted the conversation toward water safety.

It wasn’t until three drownings at Twin Lakes that water safety training finally entered area public schools. Now 9th graders in Traverse City get safety training. 

The county Parks and Recreation Department helped make that happen. Those water safety sessions have been held at Easling Pool, one of two pools in Grand Traverse County. It’s the only public pool, but not everyone thinks it’s a great public investment.

Is the county responsible for water safety?

County Commissioner Bob Johnson says, “This will probably really rile some people, but I don’t feel it’s the county’s responsibility to provide swimming lessons. I think there would be enough other groups that could provide it.”  

Johnson says he was a member of the Coast Guard for years so he cares about water safety. But as a commissioner, he’s more concerned about the county’s deficit.

“I’ve been consistently looking at what can we do to save some money in the county, and to me, with the deficit that was there, [Easling Pool] is an easy target,” he says.

Right now, county staff are trying to figure out what it would cost to keep the pool open. Repairs and upgrades could cost upwards of $1 million. Johnson realizes the pool will probably never make money for the county, but he’d like to see the deficit decrease.

Kristine Erickson, director of Parks and Recreation for the county, says closing Easling Pool isn’t a good option. She says the county needs more pools, not fewer.

“We need Easling Pool,” Erickson says. “There isn’t enough indoor swimming available to our community. There have been too many drownings, especially this summer, to not justify having Easling Pool and the [YMCA] pool or any other pool. It’s important to have a safe environment with skilled people to teach our children how to swim and keep them safe in and around the water. This is serious.”

Swim lessons may not be enough

According to Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, there have been 414 drowning deaths in the Great Lakes since 2010. Roughly half of those drownings happened in Lake Michigan. 

But Dave Benjamin says swim lessons alone won’t stop the problem. 

“It greatly increases the possibility of a person surviving a drowning accident,” Benjamin says, “but ... it doesn’t give them immunity from drowning. So the thing is causing a shift from not just knowing how to swim, but knowing how to survive a drowning situation.”

Benjamin’s organization wants all schools to teach students how to behave in drowning situations and how to assess risks in the water. And Traverse City public schools are providing something like that now for their 9th graders at Easling Pool.

But if the county doesn’t want to make the necessary repairs on the pool, then that school program would have to go to the YMCA. The YMCA has said they can’t take on all of Easling Pool’s programming. 

Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.