The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation reversed course Wednesday, abandoning a ban on open water swimming at Walden Pond that it imposed Friday, July 2 without warning.
The department had issued rules allowing swimming at Walden in 2014 after protracted community negotiations but announced last week that the rules were being suspended pending a statewide review of water safety practices. A spate of drownings around the state has officials — including Gov. Charlie Baker — calling for stepped-up water safety efforts. The DCR edict meant all swimming at the pond would be restricted to a roped-in beachfront area.
But swimmers and several dozen state legislators complained that the Walden swimming ban had been issued without any kind of public process and would do little to improve public safety.
In a letter to DCR Wednesday, a group of 50 state legislators wrote that “Walden Pond is one of the most cherished open water swimming locations in the entire state. It is also used for training by long distance swimmers, many of whom may now be forced to swim in the ocean or other less safe bodies of water.”
They argued that the open water swimming ban should be lifted and instead DCR should focus on enhanced safety regulations, such as requiring open water swimmers to wear bright-colored floating buoys, which most do anyway.
On Wednesday afternoon, DCR relented.
The department announced that “beginning on Friday, July 9, 2021, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) will open Walden Pond to open water swimming with enhanced safety measures.” Swimming will be allowed only during morning and evening hours when lifeguards are not on duty. During lifeguard shifts — 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. — open water swimming will not be allowed, so lifeguards can focus on people in pond’s the roped-in swimming area.
Those rules will last until Labor Day, at which point open water swimming will be allowed all day.
“This looks like a reasonable compromise to me,” said Elaine Howley, VP of the Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association. But, she added, “we would love to see the legislature take the next step and introduce a bill to fund programs for wider outreach and education for drowning prevention among all residents of the Commonwealth. Basic water safety skills should be something every child learns in school and lessons for adults and kids alike should be available for free to all.”
The DCR is also mandating colored buoys and requiring open water swimmers to avoid fishers and boats on the water, among other safety measures.
“Open water swimming is an inherently dangerous activity, and should not be attempted by individuals who have not trained or prepared for the activity,” the announcement warns. “Swimmers assume full risk and responsibility while engaging in this activity, and are advised to use extreme caution when swimming, always adhere to safety protocols, and use best practices to prevent potentially tragic outcomes.”