Just when it's getting about time to hit the beaches, it might not be quite as safe to go in the water.
Caught in a budgetary undertow, the state Department of Parks and Recreation is trying to stay afloat by pulling lifeguards from Marina Park in Ventura, trimming the number of lifeguards on some beaches and limiting patrol hours on others.
The cuts in service to the four state beaches in the area--McGrath, San Buenaventura, Emma Wood and Carpinteria--will depend on weather conditions, said Steve Treanor, supervisor of the park department's channel coast district.
"If it's foggy, for example, we probably would not send a guard out," Treanor said. "We would save the resource for sunny days."
So far the district's annual $125,000 budget has been slashed 25%, Treanor said. "Eventually, I expect at least a 50% overall cut."
Treanor said he is not expecting any layoffs among the 40 state lifeguards stationed at area beaches, but all of the guards will face significant cuts in their usual eight- to 10-hour workdays.
The lifeguards provide protection for an estimated 3 million people who visit county beaches each year, as well as schools and groups who go to the beach for special outings and sports events, Treanor said.
Until now, school districts have received free lifeguard services at Marina Park--a city beach that state lifeguards have patrolled without charge since the early 1970s.
But Treanor said they have been notified that they will have to pay $13 an hour for service in the future.
Meanwhile, Kirk Sturm, a lifeguard and president of the California State Lifeguard Assn., expressed concern that Marina Park will be without guards, particularly during the summer.
Sturm said beach-goers keep lifeguards busy at the popular spot. In 1991, for example, lifeguards resuscitated two swimmers, made 19 rescues, performed major first aid on eight injured people, and warned 71 boats away from bathers and rocks. All told, he said, lifeguards logged more than 3,600 safety contacts at the small stretch of beach.
Sturm said the beach is renowned for its strong rip currents which can easily pull aswimmer out to sea. Guarding the beach is complicated by the numerous jet skiers who must be separated from swimmers and surfers.
"My concern is that the public needs to be aware that they can't go to the park now and expect the same services," he said.
It's not clear if the city will step in to provide lifeguards for the park, said Gary Ray, community services supervisor for Ventura's Parks and Recreation Department. "The city is now contemplating whether to contract with the state to guard the beach, service it themselves or do nothing," Ray said.
The City Council will make the decision during its budget discussions in the next few months, Ray said.
In the meantime, he said, the city will make arrangements to guard Marina Park during special events such as beach camps or after-school outings. In such cases, the city may absorb the costs or charge them back to the user, Ray said.
As for Treanor, the top lifeguard in the area, the situation creates a dilemma. "I am in the business of providing service to the public and anytime I'm not able to do that it doesn't feel good. But with the budgetary crunch, I feel good that I'm doing the best I can with the money I have."