Park Board navigates troubled waters

Tuesday’s meeting of the Rochester Park Board didn’t resolve the debate about swimming at Foster-Arend Park. But the tone of the discussion seemed to indicate that when summer arrives, the beach once again will be packed.

A parade of people — some young, some old — essentially told the board, "Don’t take our beach away because some swimmers were reckless. We’re sorry for the families of those who’ve drowned, but in almost every case, they’d be alive if they’d followed the rules."

That’s true — all deaths but one have been outside the designated swimming area. So, it’s not surprising that the board, in its discussion after the public-comment session, didn’t seem to even consider an outright ban on swimming at the park.

Instead, board members spent most of their time discussing ways to mitigate the lake’s risks and the city’s potential legal liability: more warning signs, increased law enforcement, bringing lifeguards back to the beach. Good ideas all, but behind them was an awareness of inevitability, that there’s only so much that can be done to protect people from their own irresponsible choices.

That implies recognition, if not acceptance, of the notion that an unusually high drowning rate is a near-certainty at Foster-Arend. With no natural lakes in Olmsted County, no other free beaches in the city and more than 100,000 people in close proximity to a deep lake with little underwater visibility, Foster-Arend is the swimming equivalent of a perfect storm. Even if only one in 10,000 visitors decides to roll the dice, we’d argue that the lake will continue to claim new victims.


And, as the board mulls its next move, it is fully aware that bigger problems loom. The still-being-formed Cascade Lake, which will include one public beach, has the potential to be a beautiful, 90-acre, immensely popular spring-fed headache. The lake, which currently is a sand and gravel mine, has steep dropoffs from the shore and depths that will approach 40 feet. When the new park is complete, a bike trail will circle the lake, offering easy access to anyone who wants to take a dip outside the designated beach.

You don’t have to be a prophet to predict problems under such conditions. So, whatever new rules or enforcement methods are attempted at Foster-Arend will likely be needed at Cascade Lake, too. They won’t be fool-proof. The new lake will be five times the size of Foster-Arend, and people who combine alcohol with a swim at their own "private" beach — as inevitably will happen — could find themselves in deep trouble.

These are the cards Rochester has been dealt. If we want lakes for boating, fishing and other recreational purposes, we have to build them — and if we build them, people will swim in them.

The park board recognizes this fact, and if it chooses to rely heavily on personal responsibility of swimmers in its attempt to prevent further loss of life, we can accept that.

We do wonder, however, how many drownings it would take to turn public sentiment around.

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