Can building more swimming pools reduce child drownings? NY calls for $150 million for safe swimming spots

By | March 28, 2024

New York is about to launch a public pool expansion, a kind of new chlorine deal that would provide $150 million in grants across the state to increase the number of safe swimming locations.

Government Kathy Hochul took that leap in her $233 billion budget proposal and state lawmakers were receptive. Although the final budget is still being negotiated in Albany, it appears the uncontroversial pool plan is likely to move forward, after some wrangling over its parameters.

The quest is partly about broadening access to recreation and exercise, especially in underserved communities where swimming pools are scarce. But it comes with a sobering public health goal: reducing drownings, one of the leading causes of death among children.

“There are too many stories, especially here in the city, about young people who couldn’t swim,” Hochul said when she announced the plan in January at a Manhattan pool. “They leave one day and never come home and their families are just completely torn apart.”

This 2023 file photo shows swim instructor Ny Whyte, with help from swim instructor and lifeguard, Deanna Georgetti, as students line up and prepare for a swim around the lane during their half-hour swim lesson at the Genesee Valley Pool @ the sports complex in Rochester.  The free lessons are for children aged 6 to 17.

This 2023 file photo shows swim instructor Ny Whyte, with help from swim instructor and lifeguard, Deanna Georgetti, as students line up and prepare for a swim around the lane during their half-hour swim lesson at the Genesee Valley Pool @ the sports complex in Rochester. The free lessons are for children aged 6 to 17.

It aims to reduce fatalities by providing more public swimming pools with lifeguards and swimming lessons. Another motivation is to offer cooling areas in urban areas that are sensitive to extreme heat.

Hochul outlined three separate funding streams that municipalities and nonprofits can tap into through competitive grants:

  • $60 million to build or renovate public swimming pools in high-needs areas

  • $60 million for floating pools on waterways

  • $30 million for pop-up pools in neighborhoods where there are no other swimming locations nearby.

Count Ari Freedman-Weiss among the future applicants if the grant program becomes a reality.

Ari Freedman-Weiss hopes Governor Hochul's budget proposal to bring more swimming pools to New Yorkers will help control the state's high number of drowning victims.  He hopes the money will help him reopen this large pool, which was part of a day camp for children in Honeoye Falls.Ari Freedman-Weiss hopes Governor Hochul's budget proposal to bring more swimming pools to New Yorkers will help control the state's high number of drowning victims.  He hopes the money will help him reopen this large pool, which was part of a day camp for children in Honeoye Falls.

Ari Freedman-Weiss hopes Governor Hochul’s budget proposal to bring more swimming pools to New Yorkers will help control the state’s high number of drowning victims. He hopes the money will help him reopen this large pool, which was part of a day camp for children in Honeoye Falls.

He is the aquatics director at the Schottland Family YMCA in Pittsford, part of the YMCA of Greater Rochester network. He also heads a nonprofit that hopes to reopen a closed summer camp in Honeoye Falls — a project that will involve costly pool renovations and the possible construction of a second pool.

Freedman-Weiss was among potential grant seekers who answered the state’s call in February for informal proposals to gauge interest. He proposes operating the former Camp Sisol year-round with two enclosed pools, a project that could cost up to $2.4 million if a seasonal dome were placed over the existing pool. The revived site would be open to all community members.

He applauded the state’s push for more pools and more swimming and water safety classes.

“As an aquatics director and swim coach, I fully agree with the importance of these goals,” said Freedman-Weiss. “Swimming is great for recreation and fitness and should be made available to as many people as possible.”

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How do floating pools work?

Floating pools are the brainchild of +POOL, a New York City nonprofit that has been developing the technology since 2010. The 9,500-square-foot cross-shaped pool can be placed in city waterways, with the walls acting as filters to trap contaminants and bacteria.

The city of Yonkers is considering installing a floating pool on the Hudson River designed by +POOL, a New York City nonprofit.The city of Yonkers is considering installing a floating pool on the Hudson River designed by +POOL, a New York City nonprofit.

The city of Yonkers is considering installing a floating pool on the Hudson River designed by +POOL, a New York City nonprofit.

This year, a 20,000-square-foot test version will be installed on the East River, funded with $12 million from the state and $4 million from New York City.

Yonkers might want one of its own. William Serratore, the city’s director of sustainability, told the USA Today Network-New York that the government is considering a floating pool on the Hudson River, possibly on the site of a new park that will be built in the Ludlow area in southeastern Yonkers.

It would cost an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million to install, and its maintenance would cost another $500,000 to $750,000 a year, a recurring cost that could be subsidized with grants, Serratore said. Construction would take about a year, meaning the pool could open in 2026 or 2027 if the city goes ahead with it, he said.

In this 2023 file photo, swimming instructor and lifeguard Jessica Gonzales shows her students the type of stroke she wanted them to do at the Genesee Valley Pool @ the Sports Complex in Rochester.In this 2023 file photo, swimming instructor and lifeguard Jessica Gonzales shows her students the type of stroke she wanted them to do at the Genesee Valley Pool @ the Sports Complex in Rochester.

In this 2023 file photo, swimming instructor and lifeguard Jessica Gonzales shows her students the type of stroke she wanted them to do at the Genesee Valley Pool @ the Sports Complex in Rochester.

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano applauds Hochul’s plan to fund such projects.

“There are not enough swimming opportunities in our city for the number of children we have,” he said in an emailed statement. “The west side could even be considered a pool desert, and we want to create access for all of our children and their families.”

What else is in Hochul’s swimming pool plan?

Hochul’s proposal — also called the New York Statewide Investment in More Swimming or NY SWIMS — also includes a grant program that would allow municipalities to hire more lifeguards by covering their wages, making it possible to expand pool hours and staff for extend lessons. The amount of funding was not specified.

She also wants:

  • Fund more water safety classes for children at state pools and beaches

  • Provide transportation to take children to swimming lessons

  • Expand the use of SUNY university pools across the state by making them available for community swimming lessons

  • Offer incentives for SUNY students to become lifeguards.

Swimming needs: To prevent drowning, Albany must invest in swimming infrastructure and lessons

Hochul’s budget summary estimated the total cost of NY SWIMS at $160 million, suggesting that funding for lifeguards and other steps in addition to pool grants would total $10 million. State officials declined to provide funding details when asked.

Democratic majorities in both the Senate and Assembly supported Hochul’s pool proposal in their own budget plans, with some minor adjustments. The Assembly wants to ensure that at least $60 million is set aside for municipal pool projects in underserved areas. The Senate asked to expand the program to include natural swimming areas.

In addition to NY SWIMS, Hochul also budgeted $446 million for state-owned parks and pools. Among the plans: restoration of Rockland County’s Lake Sebago Park, a popular spot in Harriman State Park that has been closed since Hurricane Irene damaged it in 2011. The goal is to open it again to swimmers in 2027.

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What are the statistics on drownings?

About 4,000 Americans die each year from accidental drowning, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 4 years and the second leading cause of death from unintentional injury for children aged 5 to 14 years, after car accidents.

Gov. Kathy Hochul visited a Manhattan pool in January to promote her plan to fund $150 million in pool grants to expand access to safe swimming spots.Gov. Kathy Hochul visited a Manhattan pool in January to promote her plan to fund $150 million in pool grants to expand access to safe swimming spots.

Gov. Kathy Hochul visited a Manhattan pool in January to promote her plan to fund $150 million in pool grants to expand access to safe swimming spots.

Most drowning deaths among younger children occur in home swimming pools. Among those ages 5 to 14, 40% of drowning deaths occur in lakes, oceans and other natural water bodies, and 30% occur in pools.

In New York, 151 residents died from accidental drowning in 2021, the most recent annual count from the Department of Health.

Chris McKenna covers government and politics for The Journal News and USA Today Network. Reach him at cmckenna@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared in Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Will More Pools Reduce Drownings? Pushing within NY’s safe swimming locations

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