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Michigan surfers voice concerns over DNR beach access proposal

The beach at Van Buren State Park is one of the locations a proposal could affect. (WWMT/Will Haenni)
The beach at Van Buren State Park is one of the locations a proposal could affect. (WWMT/Will Haenni)
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Kathleen Grinwis, a Kalamazoo resident, day tripped to Van Buren State Park to enjoy a day at the beach with her family on Thursday. She was surprised to find people swimming despite the red flag warning on the beach.

“I was actually surprised when I got here at how many people were actually in the water and how far out they were," Grinwis said.

A proposal from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources hopes to keep state beaches safer by cracking down on beachgoers ignoring posted warnings.

The proposal aims to give conservation officers and park rangers more authority in order to keep people out of the water on dangerous swimming days.

This could include the following situations:

  • Times of dangerous water conditions
  • While a water rescue is occurring
  • When bacteria or contaminants are present
  • When other issues are identified that would impact safety, such as vessel wreckage washing ashore to the beach

The proposal is not limited to red flag days. It was a part of the agenda during the state's Natural Resources Commission meeting on July 15, 2021. Nicole Hunt, representing the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division presented the proposal to the commission and for public comment.

While the proposal allows for fines up to $500, Hunt said enforcement wouldn't always guarantee a citation. "We want to educate and receive voluntary compliance," Hunt said. "It's just a matter of making sure people cease the behavior that is putting them in harm's way."

Several public comments were heard from members of Michigan's surfing community. Those who spoke supported improved safety and enforcement on state beaches, but felt exemptions should be made for surfers or those participating in extreme water sports.

“If surfers are inadvertently removed, the water is becoming more dangerous," one man said during public comment.

Surfers are often seen immediately adjacent piers on days with high wave action because it's an area with some of the best waves to surf. For swimmers, especially without any floatation device, it can be one of the most dangerous locations for rip currents.

Without lifeguards at state beaches, the surfers said they are often the eyes on the water during red flag days. "We are your volunteer lifeguards on the beach," another man said during public comment. "Bringing people to shore, letting families know it’s probably not safe to bring your kids out there."

“Of the 986 drownings in the Great Lakes since 2010, zero have been surfers," said Dave Benjamin, the co-founder and executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. The non-profit advocates for water safety through education, outreach, and research.

A surfer himself and water safety advocate, Benjamin thought an exemption for surfers in the DNR's proposal should be considered. “Surfers, kite surfers, pro-style boogie boarders should be exempt from this" he said. "These surfers are spending hundreds of hours per year surfing the Great Lakes waves. We know the winds, we know the waves, we know the dangerous currents."

As for Grinwis, she said she hopes a happy medium could be found if the proposal goes through. "They're just trying to keep people safe," Grinwis said. "Something where people are held accountable and responsible. Especially when little lives are involved.”

The DNR's director, Daniel Eichinger, was in charge of approving the final proposal which can be authorized without approval from the Michigan Legislature or Natural Resources Commission. At the earliest, a final decision could come during the Natural Resources Committee meeting on August 12, 2021.

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