What is a life worth? I’ve asked this question in various ways over the years, but it’s always been more of a rhetorical question than something that can be answered. But as the nation stumbles through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, that is no longer just a question. In Michigan, a life is worth $20,000. In California, it’s worth $50,000.

Those are the savings that cities and governments are making to cut lifeguards in those two states. And in making those cuts, those elected officials are answering the question of how much a life is worth.

That may sound dramatic, but to anyone with any aquatic experience, it’s a simple fact: When lifeguards are eliminated, people are going to drown. Life will be lost.

I understand that difficult budget decisions must be made. Most states don’t have the luxury of the federal government. They can’t run deficits. But when deciding where to cut, these officials must be made to understand that when they eliminate lifeguards, they are, in effect, signing a death sentence. It’s up to aquatics professionals to make them understand that calculation.

If you’re not sure how, I recommend taking a page from the Huntington Beach (Calif.) lifeguards. After 40 years of protecting a particular stretch of beach, guards were cut as part of an across-the-board, 2 percent trim in city services. In response, guards started handing out fliers warning beach-goers of the risk they now faced. “NO staffed lifeguard towers, NO lifeguard patrols, NO beach or water surveillance to prevent accidental drowning or prevent other related injuries and fatalities,” the flier states.

Some city officials cried foul. The fliers were “inflammatory” and unnecessarily ginning up fear, they claimed. Here are the facts: Last year, lifeguards rescued 70 people on that beach. So how, exactly, is a flier warning of the dangers that will now exist if lifeguards are absent “inflammatory?” Seems to me it’s a public service that the city should be thanking guards for volunteering to offer, especially when someone drowns and the city gets sued.

Unfortunately, the two examples I mentioned are just a close-up of the larger problem facing aquatics.

Facilities across the nation are being asked to do more with less. If that leads to fewer lifeguards, people will die.

That’s the stark reality examined in our special report (page 22). I urge you to read it. Then think about what it means at your facility and how you can fight to maintain your lifeguard staff and ensure public safety.

Anything less is a death sentence.