What’s happened to public swimming? How will we cool off in 2024? 

By Emily Sutton

My name is Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper with the Haw River Assembly. As we enter Autumn, we will soon need to implement structural changes as we approach the impending heat of 2024, especially in regards to public swimming access. 

Bray Park Aquatic Facility in Siler City, NC

This summer was the hottest on record. As the impacts of climate change continue to become more evident, so will the trend for record breaking heat.

Earlier this summer, I lost power when Durham was hit with a microburst storm. My home and most homes in my community went without power for three days. Thankfully, the storm also brought a reprieve from the 100+ degree heat, but the city worked hard to provide cooling centers, free bags of ice, charging stations, and transportation. According to new data from the National Weather Service, heat kills more Americans than any other weather related disaster. Fortunately, Durham also provides something most municipalities in our watershed do not: access to public swimming pools.

Public pools provide a safe place for kids to learn to swim, which is a life saving skill, increasingly taught to only those who can afford private lessons in private pools. The transition to private pools coincides with the movement to desegregate public spaces. As people of color were allowed access to public pools, those pools shut down or were not properly maintained. Pool memberships became exclusive. The lack of access denied people of color the ability to learn to swim, get comfortable in, on, and around water. It also left communities of color without the therapeutic power and joy the first swim of the summer can bring.

The Haw River is not officially designated for swimming, though many cool off at the river bank at several sites in Alamance and Chatham Counties. Jordan Lake has official swim beaches accessible to anyone that pays the small fee to park, but for the upper reaches of the watershed, there is no access. Lakes open to paddling and motorized boats are closed to swimmers. Lake Brandt, Lake Townsend, Lake Mackintosh, Lake Reidsville, Lake Michael, Quaker Creek Reservoir, Stoney Creek Reservoir, and University Lake all strictly ban swimming.

In late August, park rangers recovered a person who drowned in Jordan Lake. This was the ninth drowning in Jordan Lake this summer alone. According to a 2018 study on access to swimming, 64 percent of Black children, 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 of White children have little to no swimming ability.

Cities across the United States and Europe are beginning to grapple with this disparity as the need for safe places to cool off become more essential. In the Haw River watershed, we have few public pools and even fewer public places to swim in natural bodies of water.

At Haw River Assembly, we will continue to fight to protect the right to fishable and swimmable water for ALL of our communities. Industrial discharges, excess nutrients, construction sediment run off, and bacterial contamination pose threats to that right. We also work to increase safe access to this shared resource. We provide free workshops for community members to learn to paddle, learn to swim, as well as other land based activities along the river such as nature journaling and birding. In our Nature4All Diversity Series, these workshops are led by BIPOC leaders in our community. We encourage anyone who is looking for a way to connect to the water, build water confidence, and to meet other members of your community to explore these resources we hope to share!