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Barely five years ago cities and counties were complaining about a shortage of lifeguards to watch public beaches. Now, many cities in the metro area and across the state have cut back or eliminated lifeguards to save money.
Woodbury, for example, discontinued posting lifeguards at the city-run beach this summer for the first time. In place of the lifeguards are several signs reading "No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at your own risk."
It doesn't appear the money-saving measures are resulting in a greater loss of life, but parents with small children say they would appreciate an extra pair of trained eyes on the water.
"It would be nice to have that extra security," said Natalie Bird, of Woodbury, just before firmly redirecting her young son who was getting uncomfortably far ahead of her along the path from Carver Lake Beach.
Accidental drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death among children age 14 and younger nationally and in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Safety Council. There were 33 non-boating drownings in Minnesota last year -- more than the 26 a year earlier, but fewer than the 49 and 45 deaths in 2006 and 2005, respectively.
Some argue that lifeguards are more important than ever, especially this year. When times are tough, more people stay closer to home and head to the beach, said Sarah Chillo, a beach manager for the city of Minneapolis, which has kept most of its lifeguards on duty. "It's a cheap way to spend an afternoon," she said.
There were 215 to 300 people in the water at Lake Nokomis Main Beach on Monday, plus another 100 people on the beach, Chillo said.
Lifeguards at Lake Nokomis rescue 12 to 15 swimmers a year, Chillo said. There have been none yet this year.
"Lifeguards absolutely make the beaches safer," Amy Mrozek said while trying to cool off in Lake Nokomis with her 2- and 3-year-old kids Tuesday afternoon. "It's too bad they're cutting back, but if it's necessary, it's necessary. I think most parents do a good job of keeping an eye on their kids."
In Woodbury, as in many other places, city officials said they cut the lifeguards to save money. Previously, Woodbury charged a $2 admission fee, but without lifeguards it's now free. Supplying lifeguards cost the city $7,000 to $12,000 a year, said Bob Klatt, director of Woodbury's Parks and Recreation Department. He expects to be close to break-even this year.
"We've been talking about it for a number of years and we decided this is the time to do it," Klatt said.
Prior Lake is saving $34,000 this year by eliminating lifeguards.
According to the League of Minnesota Cities, Woodbury has plenty of company.
This year's lifeguard cuts stem from concern by many cities over the loss of state-funded local government assistance, said Rachel Walker, manager of policy analysis for the league.
Minneapolis eliminated lifeguards at its Cedar South Beach, but more because of low attendance than budget, a spokeswoman said. The city maintains the same level of lifeguard service at its 11 other beaches as it did a year ago.
The Three Rivers Park District in Hennepin County eliminated lifeguards several years ago at its seven lake beaches, while maintaining them at its two man-made, chlorinated and sandy-bottomed ponds. While attendance has held steady at the beaches, it has picked up substantially at the two ponds, says Ron DeValk, park district facility manager.
People taking their kids to the beach need to do two things, he said.
"Watch your children while they are in the water, and have a plan for it when you get to the beach."