With summer nearly over, the aquatics industry is on track for a sad milestone: 2009 may be one of the deadliest drowning years on record. Every day, it seems a new tragedy makes headlines.

Of course, lifeguards are preventing tragedies every day, too. According to one statistic, well-trained, vigilant guards save approximately 70,000 people every year. There’s a word for such people — heroes.

But being a hero comes with a price. People expect more from their heroes and like to think of them as infallible. So a picture on the cover of The New York Post of a lifeguard wearing headphones while on duty shocked and angered many, especially because a drowning happened on the same beach just days before. That guard has been suspended, but the damage is done. National media is quoting concerned parents and swimmers as saying they routinely see guards chatting on cell phones or texting on duty.

The hero has fallen.

And now a high-profile drowning has happened at Kalahari Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, which bills itself as the nation’s largest waterpark. A 3-year-old boy was found dead in a children’s lagoon pool.

The national media is lumping the tragedy with the image of the guard wearing headphones.

Reports point out that Kalahari has been fined five times for lifeguard shortage violations — more than all of its local competitors combined. Parents who lost a child to drowning while a single 16-year-old was on guard are interviewed. One report asks the question: “Are lifeguards keeping you safe?”

A provocative question, no doubt good for ratings, and pandering to people’s fears. But it doesn’t get to a deeper, more important question: What is the value of life, and what are we as a society willing to pay for it? When it comes to water safety, the answer is somewhere around $9 an hour, less than most fast-food workers make.

In past columns, I’ve come down hard on the industry for not paying guards better. I stand by that criticism. But it’s not only the industry at fault. If the public is really concerned about water safety, it needs to be willing to pay for it. In 2009, when most facilities are barely getting by and many more are shutting down for lack of funding, people not only seem unwilling to pay for current levels of lifeguard staffing, but also to be saying they want less.

At Kalahari, too, where adequate staffing appears to be an issue, the question can be asked: How much more are people willing to spend to enjoy the waterpark to help ensure safety?

Unfortunately, we may never know the answer because in my experience, aquatics professionals have not been willing to ask the question. Instead, they seem content to eke by on the meager amounts the public provides, perhaps already feeling guilty about how much they rely on subsidies to operate.

But what would happen if, instead of arguing for operational costs, the industry argued for life costs? What would happen if bureaucrats had to face parents of drowning victims when they were deciding staffing levels? What would happen if private waterparks charged more, but explained that the extra cost is all in the name of water safety and ensuring well-trained, vigilant lifeguard staffs?

No amount of staffing — or money — can prevent every drowning. But just making the effort to support and value lifeguards and standing up for fair pay is an act of heroism in itself.