Funeral services were scheduled today for Chiccena Carpenter, 16, who drowned earlier this month while swimming at a Minneapolis beach without a lifeguard. Now her family is pushing to bring more lifeguard protection to Minnesota beaches.
That's a sensible expectation for city- and county-operated beaches, even though accidents can happen in the water with or without lifeguards. Minneapolis and other municipalities should reconsider policies that leave some beaches unsupervised.
Officials with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board say there are no plans to place lifeguards at all 12 of the city's beaches, but they did increase the number of guarded beaches from five to seven this year. Among those beaches, only two have guards daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., while the others have guards Thursdays through Sundays.
Cedar Point, where Carpenter drowned after going underwater while returning to shore from a floating dock, is one of three beaches on Cedar Lake and the only one without a guard. Park officials said that over a decade ago, all Minneapolis beaches had lifeguards.
The city now offers both guarded and unguarded stretches of water because some residents asked for that option. They wanted less-crowded beaches with fewer children, and some wanted to swim where they could use flotation devices not allowed at guarded beaches.
Park officials point out that more than half of the other city- or county-operated beaches in the metro area have unguarded beaches and that Minneapolis has one of the lowest drowning rates in the state. And they are working to expand swimming programs for young people.
Resources are also a factor. Officials estimate that the current lifeguard budget would increase from $115,000 to just more than $320,000 to cover all lakes every day during the summer. However, a schedule that would get at least some lifeguard coverage for every lake, perhaps only during the most popular swimming hours, should be explored for the purpose of safety.
Having lifeguards on duty is no guarantee that injuries and deaths will be prevented. Individuals and families still need to take responsibility for their own safety and must watch out for friends and relatives.
Given the abundance of lakes and beaches in the Twin Cities, it's nearly impossible to keep people out of the water if they're determined to be there. Official beaches make up a small percentage of the shoreline on area lakes. People can jump off boats, take dips before or after hours, or get access to lakes from other areas to swim in unguarded waters.
Yet lifeguards can save lives and monitor behavior at city beaches. And area residents should have more confidence in the safety of city-and county-operated beaches. As part of safety efforts, the Minneapolis Parks Department removes obstructions in the water and sets up diving docks in optimal locations. Providing trained lifeguards should be part of that package.
St. Paul guards its one beach at Lake Phalen, and Ramsey County has lifeguards at all five of its beaches. Children, teens and adults are less likely to take risks and behave irresponsibly in the water when a guard is present -- especially if they see a lifeguard actively encouraging safer swimming.
Young Chiccena is among the nearly two dozen people who have died in water accidents this year in Minnesota -- nearly twice as many as there were at the same time last year. That dramatic increase certainly makes the case for improved water-safety awareness -- including hiring more lifeguards for public beaches.
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