In wake of Silver Lake drowning, Portage panel considers safety measures

August 10, 2018

A 13-year-old boy’s drowning death in Silver Lake has generated new safety measures, and fostered discussion of others.

Shayn Wollfarth drowned while swimming in the lake June 17 and the beach and lake were closed three days afterward until searchers recovered his body.

The city of Portage’s Parks and Recreation Board on Tuesday approved new signage at Silver Lake, which will specify, among other things, that people aren’t allowed to swim, dive or run on or around the piers just south of the Silver Lake Beach roped-off area.

There also will be a new sign spelling out, more specifically, the rules for the swimming area.

And, if pre-teens and teenagers don’t know how to swim and want to learn, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will get the word out that lessons are available, and that there are partial or full scholarships for households that can’t afford swimming lessons.

Parks and Recreation Manager Dan Kremer said the department has enough money set aside in its signage budget to pay for new “Swim at Your Own Risk” signs, including some to be posted on the rim of the red wall near the swimming area, advising that there is no lifeguard there.

Also added will be a more prominent and specific sign outlining rules for the beach, including the prohibition against inflatable toys, but the allowance of non-inflatable swim noodles or kickboards, provided that the child using them can stand, head out of water, on the lake’s bottom while doing so.

Kremer said requiring the lifeguards to patrol both the roped-off swimming area and the area near the piers would result in the designated swimming beach being less safe.

If someone sees people swimming outside the designated area, or jumping into the water from a pier, they will be advised to contact Portage police, who would be authorized to enforce the no-swimming prohibition, possibly with citations, Kremer said.

Even after the June drowning, people swim in the parts of the lake located outside the designated beach area, said board chairman Brian Zirbes.

“I was there two days ago, and there were 25 people swimming there,” he said.

Even with warning signs and citations, Kremer said, it’s not likely that people will stop swimming in non-designated areas of the lake.

“We can be firmer, but it’s still a lake,” Kremer said.

As for water safety, Common Council member Mike Charles, a member of the Parks and Recreation Board, had suggested at July’s board meeting that the board explore creating a program to teach basic water safety for people who do not know how to swim, regardless of their ability to pay.

Kremer said the city offers swim lessons for all ability levels, starting with lessons for small children as young as 6 months old, with their parents.

Registration for fall swimming lessons opened Monday with many classes already full. The classes start Sept. 9 and run through Nov. 18, Sunday afternoons and evenings, at the indoor pool at Rusch Elementary School, 117 W. Franklin St. Registration for the winter session will start in December, for classes that run from January through March.

When Charles said he’d had in mind something a little more basic and informal, such as a short session on water safety, Kremer said he thinks the most effective approach is a certified swimming lesson program such as the one offered by the Parks and Recreation Department, with participants required to prove their proficiency before advancing to the next level.

Although age 5 is the starting age for beginners swim classes, Kremer said an older child who’s a non-swimmer could participate in those lessons. It might even be possible to have a beginner swimming lesson group just for older children.

Swim lesson costs for Portage residents are $23 for parent-child classes and $33 for levels 1 through 6, Non-residents pay an additional $10.

And if a household needs a scholarship, he said they should ask at the desk of the Parks and Recreation Department office, 701 W. Slifer St., 608-742-2178.

Another idea the board raised is to contact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, to see about setting up a program to lend free life jackets to Silver Lake users.

The DNR has a Kids Don’t Float life jacket loan program at Lake Wisconsin.

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