Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thoreau says "Keep Walden Free"

Well, no, he doesn't say that, but he would if he were around again.

The state DCR is considering proposals that would prohibit swimmers from swimming across Walden Pond (open water swimming, or OWS).  This is raising the hackles of lots of people, from triathletes to us normal swimmers, who enjoy wide open water where we can swim for a mile or more--and who value Walden for recreation and spirituality.

A 2.5 hour community meeting on the issue was held this week, and one attendee forwarded these notes: 

The DCR was soliciting user community input on what to do with the question of OWS at Walden. The concerns of DCR are multiple and sometimes conflicting. 

From the perspective of DCR, the current state of OWS at Walden is "unsustainable". Their concerns range from liability to their inability to patrol such a large body of water. Five to seven times per year they need to rescue swimmers outside the boundaries. Their life=guarding resources are not adequate to that task. They do not view triathletes as the problem, they seem to be more concerned with the untrained individuals who copy the triathletes and get in "over their head". 

DCR, from an organizational perspective, is asking itself the question "Why does this park have special swim privileges found at no other DCR park?" (Yet DCR loses more swimmers in shallow, guarded areas of its parks than anywhere else). 

DCR has a real concern with having a set of rules (swim only in designated areas) yet also having a policy to ignore their own rules. DCR feels that 2014 needs to be a "year of transition" to a more rule-driven, controlled OWS environment. DCR also stated "it does not want to do anything stupid".

DCR started the meeting by presenting two beautiful 2' by 3' color maps of Walden's 2014 designated swim areas. The designated OWS area was a 125 yard lane parallel to Red Cross beach. That's it. The other 99% of the pond was off limits. They solicited group input on these maps, which was universally hostile. DCR listened to us and withdrew this proposal fairly quickly. Other proposals were knocked about, perhaps a swim testing program to qualify to swim open water, better education about the risks, limited hours for OWS ... nothing was really hit upon as the solution. 

In sum, no resolution was reached. DCR really made an effort to listen to the concerns of the user communities, but as I state above, they have their own significant concerns as well. They are going to digest what they heard tonight and regroup. 

With Memorial Day weekend around the corner, where precisely does this leave us? I believe we will be permitted to continue to OWS, but changes are likely to be made. We must positively and firmly engage with DCR to meet their concerns, yet protect our interests.

DCR followed up with this email the next day:

I wanted to send along a quick note to again express our sincere appreciation for your contributions to last night's meeting. Our hope going into the evening was to emerge with a better understanding of the inspirations, use patterns, and concerns of the open water community and through that to identify opportunities to minimize conflicts with our regulations and policies and maximize safety for open water swimmers, the general public, our staff and other rescue personnel. We could not be more pleased with the outcome in that regard. By design or luck our group reflected the diversity of the open water community relative to time of day, style of swimmer, and the motivations that bring you to the water's edge and beyond. Among all those differences, there was universal agreement on the importance of Walden Pond in your lives and your vigorous opposition to any plan that constrained your swim to a lane along Red Cross Beach.

We at DCR gained immensely from the conversation and we look forward to an ongoing dialogue as we explore ideas you shared and your genuine willingness to adjust some preferred patterns in order to accomodate the agency's public safety and management goals.

Thank you.

My thoughts:

First, on enforceability:  Any rule that inhibits OWS will be disobeyed (yes, just like H. David Thoreau would advocate as a form of civil disobedience!)  Enforcement, given DCR's limited resources, would have to occur by issuing violation notices by park rangers when people return from their swim.  If any of those people contested the fine, DCR would have to send its staff to court to document the event and advocate for the penalty, drawing resources away from the lake.

(By the way, many people engage in OWS literally at dawn.  DCR does not have people on duty to enforce such rules during this time.  Would they use up scarce budget resources to add staff for this purpose?)

Second, on the issue.  Why now?  OWS has existed at the lake for decades.  What is prompting this proposed change that didn't exist years ago?  (I guess there were some similar thoughts in 2010.)  Those engaged in OWS are adults who understand the risks.  If the issue is the budget impact of the very occasional rescues, simply put in place the kind of rule that exists in the mountains in some jurisdictions: If you need to be rescued, you pay for it.

"That government is best which governs least."

Friday, May 16, at 5:00pm: Breaking news from Universal Hub!

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation said today "open-water swimming" will continue to be allowed at the historic Concord pond, but that people really shouldn't try it until they know what they're doing:
Over the last three years, there have been 28 saves by lifeguards at DCR's Walden Pond, 13 of these saves came from outside of the designated swimming areas. Water rescues in depths of more than 20 feet put swimmers, lifeguards, and emergency response personnel at a greater risk. In recent years there has been a marked increase in the number of inexperienced swimmers attempting to cross the pond creating a new and more urgent public safety challenge for the agency.
Walden Pond is a kettle pond that has a depth greater than 100 feet (108’) at its deepest point. In an effort to ensure the public’s safety at Walden Pond, while attempting to accommodate the growing popularity of long-distance swimming, DCR recently shared a draft proposal with The Walden Pond Advisory Board and other community stakeholders that would create an unobstructed, 125 yard swim lane for distance swimming in a designated unguarded swimming area. This proposal has been met with some skepticism by community advocates. As a result of ongoing conversations with advocates and emergency responders, this proposal is no longer being considered.


Anonymous said...

Why is this arising now? One word: lawyers.


John Costello said...

I'm reposting some comments from Universal Hub,

John Costello:

Would the nanny state please stop? To say nothing of the treatment that the UU Ganges that is Walden Pond gets from people. It is a kettle hole pond, no different from Houghton's Pond or the pond at Breakheart Reservation.

Can't people just swim at their own risk? It's fun to swim and not to have a whistle blown at you by the 16 year old neighbor of a State Rep working for the summer as a lifeguard. When the DCR masters snow plowing the SW Corridor for our bicycle riding friends for a few years come back and then explain to me that I can't do the backstroke across the pond full of Don Henley's emotional tears.

Neil said...

A a former park ranger at Walden Pond an almost daily fitness swimmer who occasionally does open water swims at Walden, I can't understand why this is suddenly an issue. It wasn't when I worked for the DEM (now DCR), as a matter of fact, the regular fitness swimmers were practically seen as unofficial stewards of Walden and definitely seen as an important part of the community of constituent users of the facility. The liability issue is all but moot, as the Commonwealth is immune to almost all liability in its role as the Sovereign. There is little to no impact on the pond by open water swimmers, especially when compared to the exponential numbers of recreational swimmers using the beaches, and it will be virtually impossible to enforce effectively without wasting public resources in doing so (in addition to the reasons cited in the blog: those swimmers there are a feisty bunch and undoubtedly WILL challenge any citations issued, which will use up precious DCR resources and personnel, not to mention waste the Court's time). The best thing the DCR can do now is to drop the matter and walk away and pretend it never came up.

Refugee said...



Anonymous said...

Where's Thoreau when you need him!

Now that the fare hikes or tax on poor T riders has been passed, we need a modern day version of Thoreau to lead the masses in civil disobedience against the fare hikes or better still Lady Godiva.

Barry Carol said...

As non local suggested, the core issue appears to be fear of litigation which is one of the many adverse consequences of a litigious society.

Paul Levy said...

Baryy and nonlocal:

No one sues the Comm. of MA. It takes years for your case to be heard. Then, if you happen to win, you have to await a specific appropriation from the Legislature to get paid. That takes still more years. (Right, the courts, because of separation of powers, can't force the Legislature to pay you.)

And what's the basis for a lawsuit, that Walden is an attractive nuisance? That's one kind of case to make for a child walking into someone's unfenced swimming pool, but not for an adult who knowingly heads out into open water in search of a shoreline 3/4 mile away.

Anonymous said...

From UHub:

Can you blame the DCR? This is the organization who didn't even notice a woman drowned in the deep-end of a fully staffed swimming pool.

If we're lucky, their next move will be to block hikers from using Blue Hills for their precious little "outdoor activities."

The state does not to enough to protect us from ourselves!! Nature is only meant to be fawned at from afar people. Not any other purpose!

Scoob said...

From UHub:

Enough with the Nanny State

Anyone who's ever been to Walden knows it's beautiful. It's a place to go to enjoy yourself . I've swam across exactly 4 times and will continue to do so whenever I have the time and the urge to do so. Too many people in Massachusetts are busy bodies and like liberals everywhere, seem to get almost sexual pleasure from trying to regulate and control the lives of others. My advice to the Nanny staters is to mind your own damn business.

Anonymous said...

How about they just put up a sign that says, "Swim within your abilities. We had to rescue 7 inexperienced swimmers from the middle of the pond last year."