No lifeguard on duty at state park

June 29, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

State cuts eliminate program from Lake Sammamish

The drowning at Lake Sammamish State Park last week exposed strains in a state budget too stretched to fund lifeguards in state parks.

Geronimo Morales, 23, drowned June 24, just offshore from crowded Tibbetts Beach, which has been left unguarded for 16 of the past 18 years.

Officials said tight budgets limit the amount the state can spend on lifeguards at Lake Sammamish and other state-managed swimming spots.

Tibbetts Beach has lacked regular lifeguards since 1992, and swimmers must enter the lake at their own risk.

Such accidents remain too common, despite steps to prevent such tragedies, parks and public heath officials said last week. The drowning also raises concerns about water safety as Lake Sammamish and other state parks ready for the summer rush.

But the State Parks and Recreation Commission seems unlikely to add lifeguards, especially as the cash-strapped agency struggles to keep state parks operating. Officials cut lifeguards from state parks in 1992 as a cost-cutting measure.

“We have not ever had lifeguards in all of the parks where there are swimming areas,” commission spokeswoman Virginia Painter said. “It’s been swim at your own risk, traditionally.”

Lake Sammamish Park Manager Rich Benson acknowledged the situation as “very difficult, given the stress on city, county and state budgets.”

Public Health – Seattle & King County documented six drownings throughout Lake Sammamish State Park in the decade between 1992 and 2002.

Rangers documented two drownings at the park in 2006. Rescuers pulled four near-drowning victims from the water between 2005 and 2008.

No swimmers drowned with lifeguards on duty, but some park goers drowned after the park had closed, or in other areas of the park.

Painter said the lifeguard program — instituted in 2007 after high-profile drownings at state parks and a state report focused on drowning prevention — produced inconclusive results. Lifeguards kept watch at Tibbetts Beach during the 2007-08 summers, but the recession and accompanying deep cuts to state spending sunk the pilot program for good.

Though the park offers free lifejackets for park goers to borrow, not all swimmers opt for the equipment. Rescuers said Morales had not been wearing a life jacket.

Booms separate the swimming area from the open lake, although many park goers enter the water from boats and areas not designated for swimming.

Tony Gomez, violence and injury-prevention manager for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said although drowning-prevention education plays a key role for swimmers, lifeguards should be posted near public swimming areas to help people in trouble.

“We certainly hope we don’t lose any more guarded beaches, and we’d like to see some of them restored,” he said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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