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Michigan DNR could crack down on people ignoring red flag warnings

FILE - Red flag warning at South Haven's South Beach, indicated dangerous swimming conditions on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (WWMT/File)
FILE - Red flag warning at South Haven's South Beach, indicated dangerous swimming conditions on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (WWMT/File)
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It could soon be illegal to swim in Lake Michigan when water conditions are dangerous and Michigan officials are looking at a new proposal that would force people to pay up if they break the rules.

DNR Parks and Recreation Division Director Ron Olson said under the new proposal, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources could fine people $500 if they get in the water during red-flag warnings, which indicate the water is closed due to high surf or strong currents and a high-risk of drowning. The DNR says current rules don't allow officials to enforce the rules once someone enters the water.

"We talked with local emergency officials and think this is one more thing that would be helpful," Olson said.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources will be reviewing the proposed policy change over July. The public will be able to weigh-in during a Department of Natural Resources commission meeting on July 15, 2021 . A final decision is expected in mid-August.

The proposal first surfaced during a June 18 memo issued by department heads at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. DNR said staff implemented safety measurers at state parks, such as buoyed swimming areas, flag warning systems, throw rings and vast amounts of education on water safety.

"Even with those measures, accidents and drownings continue to occur each year," the memo said.

Olson said the proposed rule revision gives officials the option to act quicker when water conditions get dangerous.

"Sometimes we may use this tool if there’s not red flag warnings," Olson said.

The memo said safety rescues at Great Lake beaches have occurred at times when the red flag is flying indicating that wave height is 3-5 feet, or higher, lake conditions are high risk and dangerous.

"Even more alarming is the observations of people entering the water during these dangerous conditions while a water rescue is occurring," the memo said.

Other states like Wisconsin close beaches on red flag days but allow people to swim at their own risk. The Michigan United Conservation Club, or MUCC, said the proposal could unfairly punish some like surfers and extreme water sports enthusiasts.

"Our concern is cutting off access when potentially the recreational you choose to do might include high waves," MUCC Executive Director Amy Trotter said.

The group is also raising some concern about the DNR proposal, which can be authorized by Director Daniel Eichinger without approval from the Michigan Legislature or Natural Resources Commission.

According to its website, Michigan United Conservation Clubs does not have a resolution on the matter; however, the organization is concerned this could lead to a slippery slope, said Ian FitzGerald, MUCC policy coordinator.

According to the nonprofit organization, The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, there have been 34 drownings in the Great Lakes in 2021 of July 5, 2021.

In 2020, 56 drownings took place along Michigan shorelines, the deadliest year on record, according to its database.

Dave Benjamin, co-founder and executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said dangerous currents, high waves and the failure to follow safety protocols contribute to the drownings.

Benjamin said between about 16% to 25 % drownings happened during red flag warnings.

Benjamin said he would like to see lifeguards on state-run beaches.

Beachgoers, like Danny Englehadrt, said they're skeptical about a proposal to fine people for entering the water during dangerous situations.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. It’s not going to really change a whole lot, people are going to go against their better judgement anyways," Englehardt said.

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With no lifeguards at most Michigan beaches, officials strongly encourage beachgoers to follow flag warnings and on red flag days avoid swimming in the lake.

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