With city pools closed in Sioux Falls, swimmers looking to cool off this summer have turned to the region’s closest lakes. But the overcrowding combined with the summer’s strong wind has led to some increased danger at Wall Lake.
Neighbors Eric Sinclair and Bunny Timpe have a front row seat to Wall Lake beach from their homes on the north side of the lake.
“When the weather started warming up, people just flocked to Wall Lake beach,” Sinclair said. “There’s a sea of people out there on the weekends.”
It’s a big difference from what they’ve seen over the past 10 years of living on the lake.
“A lot more commotion, we’ve had fights, we’ve had some safety issues here,” Timpe said.
“The beaches are packed, our parking lots are over flowing and the boat traffic has doubled than what it has been in the past couple years for sure,’ Game Fish and Parks Regional Conservation Officer Supervisor Jeremy Roe said.
Officials with South Dakota Game Fish and Parks have also noticed the steep increase in traffic.
“We’re definitely doing added patrols, going around checking ramps and putting the boat out more to do our safety checks,” Roe said.
“We knew it was going to put pressure on Lake Alvin and Wall Lake,” Minnehaha County Commission Chair Jean Bender said.
While GF&P is in charge of the water, Minnehaha County oversees the beach at Wall Lake. As soon as Sioux Falls announced pools would be closed, the commission started preparing for an influx of people.
“Right away we had issues with a lot of younger people being out there and some disturbances and things happening and families not feeling particularly comfortable out there,” Bender said.
Since then, the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s department has added deputies to the beach.
“They were out there for several weeks all afternoon and into the evening, that kind of got under control,” Timpe said.
“We’re always keeping an eye on what’s happening on the beach, if we’re out boating we go by the beach multiple times,” Sinclair said.
Meanwhile, boaters like Sinclair have ended up being a lifeline for many Wall Lake visitors in the water.
“We had over a half a dozen people just in a few days this summer that we picked up and brought back to the beach,” Sinclair said.
From kayakers who flipped over without a life jacket to swimmers who floated too far out, Sinclair and his neighbors have helped pull several people out of a dangerous situation.
“As I was going back to the beach, there was I would say a younger-than-three-year-old toddler out on a little floatable, with no life jacket, floating out into the lake, way out passed the buoys,” Sinclair said. “His father had just taken his eye off him for a minute. With that wind it just takes him out of there, the father could not catch up with him and wasn’t a great swimmer, I ended up having to pull both of them out of the lake. That is not an uncommon story on the beach and the lake.”
“I do think there are people out there using the lake that may not have grown up around them, might not recognize the difference,” Bender said.
Minnehaha County Commission Chair Jean Bender says county leaders are having constant conversations about how to make the lake safer this busy summer.
“Game Fish and Parks worked with us to put a couple of those big white round rescue buoys out there,” Bender said.
“We definitely stress to watch your kids when they are on an inner tube when they are on a swim beach because as soon as they get outside them buoys, that’s when you get into boat traffic as well and it gets to be a big safety issue in a hurry,” Roe said.
Regional Conservation Officer Supervisor Jeremy Roe says in addition to new swimmers, there are a lot of new boaters this year that can create some added dangers. It’s one of the reasons they’ve now moved the buoys in closer.
“We pulled the buoys in, they were in about eight foot of water now they’re in about five or six foot, just to add a little bit of a safety measure,” Roe said.
“The gentleman that drowned, drowned within the buoys where there was a nine foot drop-off,” Timpe said.
Earlier this summer, Lazerick Grant, 38, died after saving his son and nephew from drowning in the swim area at Wall Lake.
“You’re on this beach, you have this gradual slope to the water…but once you get out to the buoys you find that it is way over your head and the wind is so strong when you get out that far that a lot of times its too late that you just can’t get back,” Sinclair said.
“I walked the beach one day, I talked to people, there was a majority of people that didn’t’ know how to swim and yet they were going into the water,” Timpe said. “So my conversation was. If there were life vests available, would you wear them?”
Now Timpe and Sinclair and other homeowners in the group Friends of Wall Lake are working with the county to start a free life jacket program on the beach.
“It’s going to be a lending program very much like the one down in Yankton where there will be a place where they house the vests, there will be signage there talking about how to fit the vest, people can borrow it while they’re there and then leave them when they leave,” Timpe said.
“I think the residents really do care immensely about this lake and the safety of the people who are utilizing it,” Sinclair said.
The life jackets in this new program are being donated by members of Friends of Wall Lake, another way they’re trying to make sure everyone can enjoy the lake safely.
“It’s wonderful to see people utilizing a lake and families having fun, we just want to emphasize the safety that needs to happen,” Sinclair said.
“The intent is to make this beautiful place that we call home a place that is safe for everybody who visits as well,” Timpe said.
The ring rescue buoys on the beach were added earlier this month and the buoys were moved back to five feet just last week. The commission has approved the resident’s life jacket program that will be available later this summer.