Summertime, and the swimming's not easy

Budget constraints close pools, ponds

Due to budget cuts, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation has closed Berry Pond at Harold Parker State Forest. Due to budget cuts, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation has closed Berry Pond at Harold Parker State Forest. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 27, 2009
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When the sprinkler and garden hose just can’t beat the summer swelter, town pools, swimming holes, and kiddie spray parks are often the nearest source of sweet relief.

But this summer, with local budgets melting away, some communities are reluctantly closing popular public swimming sites to save money, and more are expected to follow suit as the season progresses.

In Worcester, all eight city pools will remain closed, for a savings of about $400,000, and Lowell will keep three of the city’s seven swimming areas dry. Three state-run ponds, as well as several state parks with swimming areas, are also closed because of staffing cutbacks.

“I’m not going to be surprised if there are big budget cuts to the parks and the pools,’’ said Rick Sullivan, commissioner of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. “It’s fair to say that every town is under stress.’’

Compounding the local financial crunches are new federal regulations mandating that special drainage covers be installed in all public pools. The covers are designed to reduce the suction from pool drains, blamed for 11 deaths in the past decade and more than 70 other entrapments.

“It’s pretty expensive - $900 a cover,’’ said Stan Walczak, superintendent of the parks and recreation department in Chicopee, which boasts four Olympic-size pools.

Despite the added expense, Chicopee’s pools will open on time and fully staffed Monday. But other cities pointed to the cost of compliance as a factor in closings.

Tom Bellegarde, Lowell’s parks and recreation commissioner, whose department is facing a 21 percent budget cut, said it would have cost the city $30,000 to upgrade two aging wading pools, a price that was deemed excessive.

Realizing the heightened demand for “aquatic opportunities,’’ as some recreation officials put it, cash-strapped communities are scrambling to keep popular swimming spots open. Some towns, including Medford and Hingham, are considering shorter seasons, and others will now charge fees. Norton, for instance, will charge families $5 a day or $50 for the season, helping support a bare-bones budget that has dropped $50,000 in two years to under $10,000.

In Norton, Town Manager James Purcell said giving children a place to swim safely keeps them from heading to reservoirs, rivers, and lakes to cool off.

“On a sweltering hot day, people are going to seek some relief,’’ he said. “Having supervised swimming is a public safety matter.’’

The DCR will not allow swimming this summer at Berry Pond in Harold Parker State Forest, North Andover; Dean Pond in Brimfield State Forest; and Fearings Pond in Myles Standish State Forest, Plymouth.

But despite an anticipated budget cut of some $11 million, the state will keep open all 37 of its swimming pools and spray parks, most of them in cities, where swimming options are limited.

“With this economy, as people decide to stay closer to home, it’s that much more important the state facilities are available,’’ said Sullivan, the state commissioner.

State recreation officials will work with Worcester officials to provide transportation to state beaches, he said. Camping reservations and park attendance are up sharply from last year, and officials expect a similar rush to area swimming spots.

Officials said the decision to close the pools was regrettable but unavoidable.

“In the end, the confluence of budget cuts for operational needs, combined with the poor condition of the pools, made the decision final,’’ said Robert Moylan Jr., commissioner of Worcester’s Department of Public Works & Parks.

In Springfield, officials were able to land a federal block grant to keep all but one of their 21 pools and water parks open. Staffing and maintenance for a single pool can run up to $100,000 for a season.

In Wayland, residents are taking matters into their own hands, launching a fund-raising campaign for a new community pool. The group has already raised $1.25 million, half of the projected cost, said Ben Downs, who is spearheading the effort.

The same economic downturn that is forcing the closings, recreation officials say, makes them particularly ill-timed. With more families staying close to home this summer to cut costs, local swimming options are in heavy demand.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact of ‘staycations,’ ’’ said Kelley Rice, a spokeswoman for YMCA Greater Boston, which has seen short-term membership at its 13 area facilities surge by nearly one-third over last year. Enrollments in day camps, which begin this week, have risen by 20 percent to 12,000, Rice said.

In Cambridge, swimmers of all ages are flocking to the new indoor facility at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, which boasts three pools. But once school lets out, kids also crowd the only city-owned outdoor pool, Gold Star Pool in East Cambridge. It’s unheated and there’s no diving board, but at just 75 cents a day, the price is right.

“They love it,’’ said Jackie Neel, the city’s deputy director for human services.

As long as the sun cooperates - after finally emerging from June’s protracted gloom.

“That’s the other element we need,’’ said Walczak.