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Those flags that warn of conditions on Lake Michigan beaches are often wrong, says water safety group

Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project says this July 4th photo shows green conditions at Grand Haven State Park - but the Park has put up a yellow flag.
Grand Haven State Park, Facebook screenshot
Grand Haven State Park
Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project says this July 4th photo shows green conditions at Grand Haven State Park - but the Park has put up a yellow flag.

A water safety group says the flag system that warns swimmers of dangerous conditions is being misused at most Lake Michigan beaches.

Dave Benjamin is with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. He said cities and state parks often put a yellow or red flag up when it should be green, for example.

That can overstate the danger for swimmers and waders, and lead them to not take the flags seriously.

The reverse is also true, Benjamin said — he's occasionally seen green or yellow flags flying over beaches with waves well over four feet.

"It's consistently inconsistent," he said. "Often times, the flags on the beach do not represent the conditions of the water. Nobody's doing it the same — essentially they're all doing it a slight different version of wrong. Those flags might be up there 6, 7 hours until somebody comes back to change them, and water conditions can go from green to yellow to red in less than an hour."

Benjamin said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, at a minimum, should issue management procedures to all municipalities and state parks for how to use the flags properly.

But he said in reality, the only way to have flags accurately reflecting water conditions is to have staff on the beach, monitoring conditions at all times. In other words, lifeguards, such as those hired by New Buffalo and St. Joseph to watch swimmers at their Lake Michigan beaches.

He said it only takes a minute for someone who is drowning to go underwater and not come back up — but it can take three minutes to 20 minutes for emergency responders to arrive at the scene. Lifeguards can respond immediately, he said.

At the end of last month, 20 people had drowned in Lake Michigan this year — an increase from the same time last year.

Brandon Hinz is Executive Director for South Haven Area Emergency Services, which operates the city's Lake Michigan beaches. He agreed it might be a good idea for the DNR to issue procedures to make sure the flag system is being used consistently from beach to beach.

In South Haven, he said, attendants update conditions on the water at least every four hours, and staff can also monitor changing conditions using remote cameras. Beach users are also encouraged to sign up for alerts about changing water conditions.

"Obviously, eyes on the beach is best," he said. South Haven did have a lifeguard program in the past, Hinz said, but it was discontinued in the late '90s.

Ron Olson, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Director, defended the flag system.

"We believe the system we have is working well," Olson said, adding that he doesn't have authority over how municipalities on Lake Michigan use the flag system.

"I think you have to depend on the people who are managing these beaches. To me, it's a series of considerations," said Olson. "All we're trying to do is give the public a fair warning. There are times when the waves are not high and the rip currents are treacherous. How can you tell that from an observation on a web cam?"

Olson said State Park staff spend up to 50% of their work hours monitoring the flags and changing them when conditions change.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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