Why did drownings in Lake Michigan decrease last year?  5 possible reasons

Why did drownings in Lake Michigan decrease last year? 5 possible reasons

SOUTH HAVEN, MI – The good news: Drownings in Lake Michigan decreased in 2023, both on Michigan shores and in other states.

The bad news: Dozens of people still drown each year in Lake Michigan, which is consistently the deadliest of the Great Lakes.

In 2023, 85 people drowned in the Great Lakes, according to unofficial counts kept by a beach safety advocacy group. That’s fewer drownings than in any of the last seven years.

Drownings also occurred in Lake Michigan (41) and on the shores of Lake Michigan (six). Both are seven-year minimums.

Experts wonder: What is the reason behind the recent reduction? And what can be done to continue the trend of reducing drownings?

(Can’t see the graph? Click here.)

Experts say education, technology, training, weather and new state and local rules could have something to do with it.

“Our beaches provide tremendous recreational opportunities, but Lake Michigan can be unpredictable,” said South Haven City Manager Kate Hosier. The popular tourist destination uses a variety of safety practices to reduce drownings, she said.

“But visitors must take responsibility for their actions and do their part to stay safe,” Hosier said.

There have not been any drownings on Lake Michigan beaches in South Haven in more than a year. Hosier believes recent changes in the city are helping.

One year of declining drownings is not a trend, so experts are not yet issuing conclusive verdicts.

Here are five factors that may have helped decrease drownings in 2023, plus more information about the ongoing debate over the value of lifeguards.


While there are many ways people can affect beach safety, there is one factor beyond human control: the weather.

Drownings may have decreased in 2023 because bad weather (such as rain, wind or cold temperatures) kept people home, said Dave Benjamin of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

Remember some weekends with colder water temperatures on Lake Michigan, specifically in late June.

A comparison of the weather data with the historical trend shows periods when temperatures fell below average, including late June and late August. But the data also shows other times last summer when temperatures soared above average.

“The highest frequency of drownings will occur during hot weekends,” Benjamin told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette.

Rain is another obvious deterrent. June was drier than average, but July and August were wetter than average, according to data from the Dutch National Meteorological Service.

  • June 2023: 1.12 inches of precipitation (3.45 inches average)
  • July 2023: 4.92 inches of precipitation (average 2.8 inches)
  • August 2023: 3.47 inches of precipitation (3.06 inches average)

The rain seemed to be concentrated in the most common period to visit the beach. From June 25 to August 17, Holland had 9.02 inches of precipitation. That’s nearly double the average of 5.11 inches for the period and close to the 1972 record of 12.21 inches.

Data from the National Weather Service shows how wet it was in the Netherlands last summer (green line) compared to the average (brown line), all-time high (blue line) and all-time low (red line).

The weekends were also particularly rainy, when the beaches are usually most crowded.

From June 10 to August 6, six of the nine weekends had at least 0.15 inches of rain and often more.

So how about something that humans can control?

Local and state laws

New rules in communities along the lakefront are also helping, officials say.

South Haven instituted changes in 2022, allowing the city to close its docks during unsafe conditions and fine people who do not comply. The docks create strong underwater currents, according to the Michigan DNR.

The state also passed a new law prohibiting diving into dangerous water conditions, as indicated by a flag warning system.

Rules only work when people follow them.

It’s disappointing when visitors ignore local leaders’ decisions aimed at increasing beach safety, Hosier said.

South Haven’s ordinance allows the city to close the pier and fine people who do not obey the closure.

To address that, the city is working with a contractor to install permanent gates at the dock this summer, Hosier said.

Warning systems

Another warning to keep in mind: signs alerting people to water conditions.

Signs along Lake Michigan beaches warn people about dangers like rip currents. More life jacket stations also offer free access to loaner flotation devices.

A “No lifeguards on duty” warning sign that also talks about water safety and rip currents at Olive Shores, an Ottawa County park in Port Sheldon Twp., Michigan, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 (Joel Bissell |

South Haven and other communities have instituted warning systems with flags on beaches to alert people when officials see conditions becoming dangerous.

Related: What do the new double red flags on Great Lakes beaches mean?

People who ignore warnings are putting their lives (and those of rescuers) at risk, Hosier said.

“Swimmers must take responsibility for their actions and do their part to stay safe,” Hosier said. “This means understanding the flag system and your personal limitations and staying out of the water when conditions are unsafe.”

People can now view South Haven Beach warning flag status online and sign up for text alerts.

Grand Haven’s warning system is more high-tech, with security lighting towers connected to the National Weather Service.

Another innovation is from the NWS, which allows visitors to check rip current forecasts before heading to the beach to avoid weather-related problems. Rip currents can occur even on nice, sunny days, according to the NWS.

Still, critics of warning systems say they are only as good as the information that updates them. People should observe and evaluate the weather and water to update the alert status, Benjamin said.

Life-saving technology

Drones, robots, beach traffic lights and text alerts represent some new examples of technology used on Michigan beaches to curb tragic water-related deaths.

New technology has a financial cost and requires training. Wind and other weather conditions can pose challenges for some technologies; For example, a drone aiming to drop a flotation device from the sky to swimmers struggling from below may be hindered by wind.

Safety advocates say tools, such as the EMILY (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Cord) lifesaving robot, work best when combined with an established lifesaving program.

The EMILY robots, coming to Lake Michigan beaches through a private donation, can remotely target struggling swimmers so they have something to hold on to. But they are not designed to carry the swimmer back to shore, Benjamin said.

RELATED: Parents of couple who drowned in Lake Michigan use life insurance money to buy beach safety robots

Robots can help rescuers on shore by quickly helping a swimmer in difficulty.

“If they are 50 to 100 meters from shore and there are waves and they get caught in a rip current, this will get there faster,” Benjamin said.

EMILY is a remote controlled aquatic device that can be sent to help save people in the water. The device will reach the shores of Lake Michigan following a donation to Berrien County.

Education and training

Berrien County Sheriff Chuck Heit is encouraged by seeing the number of drownings in the Great Lakes and also locally.

To address drownings, Berrien County has been providing more education about things like rip currents.

The training instructs people not to fight if they are caught in a rip current, but to float, the sheriff said.

In South Haven, there is a team called South Haven Area Emergency Services that receives water rescue training, Hosier said.

The city is also expanding its beach patrol assistant program this year, adding more beach patrol assistants from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

City employees monitor water conditions so they can update the beach warning flags, the warning flag website and the text alert system, Hosier said. Attendants educate beachgoers about the flag system, the swimming area, and other beach rules. They are sworn code enforcement officers and can issue tickets for entering a closed swimming area or closed dock.

“Education by staff on water safety and beach rules, combined with law enforcement, has been very successful,” Hosier said.

More lifeguards?

Like the waves constantly crashing on the South Haven shoreline, the debate over beach safety has no end in sight.

Some safety advocates have stressed the importance of having lifeguards. Benjamin, for example, said establishing a lifeguard program should be a top priority on all beaches.

“If you have a parking lot and you charge for parking, then you should have a lifeguard program,” Benjamin said.

After some public pressure, the South Haven City Council has taken a step to bring back lifeguards, more than 20 years since a previous program was disbanded. The issue has been considered one of the city’s top priorities this year, although it will take time to launch a program.

In Berrien County, New Buffalo and St. Joseph municipal beaches already have lifeguards on staff.

Heit believes the “watchful eyes” of lifeguards make a difference.

He sees how different facets of beach safety can come together to help prevent drownings: lifeguards, education, technology and more.

“Lifeguards will give instructions and intervene if something happens,” Heit said.

Hosier said television shows like “Baywatch” left us with inaccurate impressions about the role of lifeguards.

“Lifeguards are on duty primarily to prevent bad behavior,” Hosier said. “For example, they might bring people swimming too close to the dock or intervene when children play too roughly. Rescue operations are a secondary function.”

So for any system to work, all efforts must be coordinated and collaborative, he said.

“Some community advocates seem to think lifeguards are a silver bullet,” Hosier said. “But they are only part of the system.”

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