County's swimming ban should bite dust

Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges grew up swimming in lakes. As a boy in South Bend, Ind., he used to sneak onto the Notre Dame campus to swim in its lake. He spent college summers as a waterfront director at a Boy Scout camp in Michigan. And while at Indiana University in Bloomington, he swam in the area's water-filled stone quarries.

He arrived last year in Mecklenburg County, which since the late 1970s has banned swimming at all its parks. “When I first came here, my question was, why isn't there swimming?” Mr. Garges says.

Good question. It's time to change that.

Swimming has been banned in Mecklenburg's county-run parks since summer 1977, shortly after a 250-yard, white-sand beach and swimming area opened at what's now McDowell Nature Preserve on Lake Wylie. Within two months, one person drowned in the designated swimming area and three others drowned in nearby coves. Lifeguards said at the time they were saving about two people a day in the murky water that hid steep drop-offs.

The county's response – ban swimming everywhere – was simplistic and short-sighted. It showed disdain for the recreation needs of thousands of residents.

Some discussion arose in 1987 and in 1990 to re-open a swimming beach at one of the county's lakefront parks, but county commissioners rejected the idea. The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has been pushing the county for more than a decade to lift its swimming ban.

To be sure, as Mr. Garges is well aware, lake swimming requires different precautions. Unlike a swimming pool, the water isn't a clear turquoise. The lake bottom should be free of obstacles and without steep drop-offs. But understanding those precautions is not like understanding string theory and quantum physics. Plenty of communities all over the country have figured out how to offer safe public swimming at lakes. If Mecklenburg County hasn't, it's probably because it hasn't tried very hard.

It's particularly unfortunate because virtually all the shoreline of the Catawba River lake system was privatized by Duke Power, now Duke Energy, which acquired the land decades ago to serve a public purpose – to create lakes to generate electricity. Yet outside a handful of parks, the public has no access to the lakes.

And to top it off, the most populous county on the shores of Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie bans swimming at its parks.

The county park department will study cost, location, liability and other issues. That's prudent. But none of those issues should be insurmountable or be allowed to derail the proposal. Mecklenburg's residents have been left high and dry for far too long.