The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Brevard County, Fla.; the city of Great Falls, Mont.; City of San Diego Lifeguard Services: across the nation, recreation agencies like these have lost significant funding due to the recession. Consequently, many have been forced to make hard choices and the result has been significant reductions when it comes to aquatics.

“I would say that at every meeting [of the Bay Area Public Pool Operators Association] in the last six months, someone’s had something being cut,” said Rebecca Toussaint, recreation coordinator for the City of Newark, Calif., and BAPPOA president.

Just where did the chips fall? Generally speaking, it appears the majority of cash strapped agencies have opted to reduce operation schedules and programming at aquatics venues. Some, such as the cities of Overland Park, Kan., and Vista, Calif., reportedly raised fees, but others have taken more drastic measures.

Toussaint says she and almost everyone she’s spoken with is either under a salary freeze and/or has had reductions in compensation and/or staffing. She also recalled one BAPPOA member who had a pool facility shut down completely because the city could not afford the maintenance expense to open it. The cities of Toledo, Ohio, Wilmington, N.C., Parma, Ohio, and Philadelphia are just some of the other agencies forced to completely close aquatics facilities.

As a rule, when it’s time to make cuts, so-called nonessential, “quality of life” expenses like recreation are first to go, and as one of the most expensive areas of recreation, aquatics is often on the chopping block, noted John Whitmore,National Recreation and Park Association Aquatics Branch president.

Now that summer is here, the biggest concern of most industry experts is the impact on public safety. 

“From our perspective, it appears budget cuts are having an impact on safety,” said Gerald Dworkin. As a consultant for aquatic safety and water rescue for Lifesaving Resources, based in Harrisville, N.H., Dworkin conducts trainings for both recreation and public safety agencies. He reports a major decline in requests for training on the recreation side, which usually encompasses lifeguards.

“It’s well documented that where lifeguards are present the beaches and waterways are safer, so any degradation in the level of staffing is certain to result in an increase in drowning deaths and other aquatic injuries that would otherwise be prevented,” said B. Chris Brewster, president, United States Lifesaving Association, based in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the recession means pool operators stand to see an uptick in visitors looking for affordable fun. The unemployed, and those opting to “staycation” may spend more time at the local pool and that could mean dangerous overcrowding.

“Pool managers may need to be attentive to whether there are to many people in the pool for guards to adequately attend too,” said Brewster.

Whitmore notes that operators may also see more “pool rats,” those unsupervised children dropped off by parents each day at the public pool, to be unofficially looked after by pool staff.

“When the economy took a downswing after 9/11 we had a definite upswing in the number of kids who were ‘pool rats,’” said Whitmore.

As regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Long Island Region, Ron Foley was one public recreation professional forced to make hard choices. Faced with a budget reduced by more than $1 million, his agency closed one of the two swimming pools at Jones Beach State Park, along with one section of beachfront. Jones Beach normally hires around 500 lifeguards and by closing the one section – which averages approximately 13,000 visitors each summer — Foley’s agency reduced the guard staff by 50.

“A couple of priorities drove our decisions,” said Foley. “Public safety was No. 1, followed by enjoyment of the outdoor experience. [The closures] may mean reduced availability, but not reduced safety. We don’t think we’ve impacted safety at all.”

Still, according to a New York Newsday report, the union representing Jones Beach lifeguards raised concerns about overcrowding on the open beachfront and other experts would question the logistical difficulties in physically preventing a person from entering the water on an unguarded beach.

All told, little can be done to change funding for this summer, so experts are looking ahead at the long-term implications of budget cuts. Toussaint said that while so far, budgets have primarily been “nickel and dimed,” she believes things are likely to get worse before they get better. And once the economy turns around, history shows restoring funding is likely to be a challenge. Others note that if there are fewer safe places for children to learn to swim today, there may mean fewer potential lifeguards and more potential drowning victims tomorrow.

The outlook appears pretty grim, but there is a silver lining. Toussaint notes that there are still communities that have been not had to reduce services and the economic forecast is beginning to show small signs of improvement. She adds that operators she’s spoken with recognize just how critical maintaining current safety standards are and said some are demonstrating their dedication by speaking up to those holding the purse strings and choosing to fund their own training out of pocket. “In general, the people I meet in the industry are pretty top notch,” she said.