GLYNDON, Minn. — By this time of year, children are usually splashing and playing in a popular swimming pond near here.

But for now, they can only walk through the empty, sand-bottomed pit in Buffalo River State Park.

The park's swimming pond, which is drained at the end of each summer, is getting its latest opening ever, and time is running out for it to be filled with water for the July 4 holiday.

Chuck Carpenter, district one supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Trails, said a minimum of six lifeguards are needed before they can open the pond. So far, the DNR has only been able to hire two.

“Over the last few years, it’s been increasingly difficult ... getting our full team of lifeguards hired,” Carpenter said.

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The park’s location, 14 miles east of Fargo-Moorhead along U.S. Highway 10, makes it a popular spot on hot summer days. Most of its 120,000 to 146,000 annual visitors come during the summer months, Carpenter said.

The pond is coming off a season marred by the drowning of 9-year-old Grace Bettie on June 27, 2018. She was part of a Moorhead police summer youth program outing at the time.

The pond was closed for several days afterward, while the DNR offered counseling for park staff on duty that day.

Asked whether the drowning has had an impact on the hiring of lifeguards this season, Carpenter said there is no data to indicate that.

He said he’s hopeful the pond can be open for the upcoming holiday. However, with lifeguards yet to be hired, and 10 days required to fill the pond, the pumping of water would have to start in the early part of this week.

Lifeguard shortage

For any kind of swimming facility, hiring lifeguards can be a challenge, given the special training required and a reliance on high school and college students to fill the temporary jobs.

However, all public pools in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo have found enough lifeguards this summer, according to park officials in those cities.

Fargo’s five pools are fully staffed and have a couple of substitute lifeguards at the ready, said Dave Klundt, assistant director of programming and facilities for Fargo parks. Klundt said he recruits lifeguards year-round to make sure he doesn’t run short.

Buffalo River State Park put out a follow-up call for lifeguards in early June, after receiving few initial applicants. Carpenter said a few candidates have dropped out of consideration since then.

The park experienced a similar shortage in 2014, he said, but was able to fill out the staff and have the pool open by mid-June.

Legal claim still pending

After Grace Bettie drowned last June, several eyewitnesses came forward to say they didn’t think there were enough chaperones for the large youth group swimming in the pond and that some weren’t watching the children.

Bettie was pulled unresponsive from the water just after 4 p.m. that day, and lifesaving efforts at the scene were not successful.

It was the fourth drowning in the swimming hole since 1996, according to Forum archives. Two near drownings also occurred there during that period.

Jeanne Broadbent, a frequent patron of the pond, said at the time, "I felt like an accident was waiting to happen and then it did."

In October 2018, Clay County prosecutors released a memo saying that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with the girl’s death.

Last fall, the DNR said it couldn’t discuss the case because of a pending legal claim against the state over the drowning. However, the DNR office of general counsel said last week it still hasn’t received any response regarding that initial claim.

Attorney William Lubov of Golden Valley, Minn., told The Forum last fall he intended to pursue a civil case on behalf of the girl's family. Lubov did not return a phone call last week seeking comment about the status of that case.

'The clarity issue'

Philip Leversedge, deputy director of the DNR’s Division of Parks and Trails, said the agency reviewed its policies after the drowning last summer and determined no changes were necessary for the 2019 season.

He said the park “does its best” to provide adequate lifeguards at the pond, but also relies on adults to supervise their children.

Under the park's policy, children 6 and younger must have an adult in the water with them and children 7 and older must be supervised by an adult from the water or the sand beach. The pond is also cleared every hour, and park staff remind people to keep watch over their children.

According to a 2010 Minnesota Department of Health document, the state has a total of 12 such swimming ponds, which have bottoms that are not visible at all depths.

“This is a problem because a swimmer who is in trouble or who has sunk to the bottom of the pond cannot be seen and helped,” the document stated.

The health department said those ponds are a “slightly greater public health risk than public pools due to the clarity issue.”

Sally Casey walks through the dry bed of the swimming pond at Buffalo River State Park with her children Maggie and John on Thursday, June 20, east of Glyndon, Minn. The pond hasn't opened this summer due to a lack of lifeguards. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Sally Casey walks through the dry bed of the swimming pond at Buffalo River State Park with her children Maggie and John on Thursday, June 20, east of Glyndon, Minn. The pond hasn't opened this summer due to a lack of lifeguards. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Sally Casey, of Glyndon, is a longtime Buffalo River State Park visitor, and often brings her nine children to the pond.

She said she loves the natural surroundings and the sandy beach, but she watches her kids “like a hawk” while they're swimming. “It’s really hard when the water is so cloudy,” Casey said.

The water, pumped in from the nearby Buffalo River, is filtered and chlorinated by a filtration plant added as part of a state-funded $1.2 million renovation started in 2002.

Casey hopes the pond will be ready for swimmers soon, but the opening remains up in the air.

“We have people eager to get out here,” Carpenter said.

To apply for a lifeguard position at the park, contact park manager Brian Nelson at 218-498-2124 or brian.a.nelson@state.mn.us.