Laguna Beach to add lifeguard hours, Mermaid Beach tower

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Orange County lifeguards swim amid rough surf during the search for a missing swimmer in August 2020 at Table Rock Beach. Courtesy of John Thomas

The Laguna Beach Marine Safety Department has planned a major increase in staff, costing $586,000 over the next two years, to confront dangerous and nuisance behavior by some beach visitors.

Earlier this month, the Department rolled out a new schedule that will see 365 days of lifeguard service at Crescent Bay, Shaw’s Cove, Victoria Beach, Lagunita Beach, and Treasure Island Beach.

“We’re excited about having that coverage year-round,” Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow said. “For the public, if they can go to an area and know there will be a lifeguard it will good thing. It’s just less likely you’ll have some these behaviors of drinking, smoking, littering, and dogs off-leash.”

On June 12, Marine Safety will also install and staff a lifeguard tower during the summer at Mermaid Beach—home to the so-called Pirate Tower. Uninformed visitors caught in the strong rip current off the rocky stretch of coastline next to the popular saltwater pool and tower have generated a significant increase in calls over the last decade, Snow said.

Couples in search of dazzling pregnancy or engagement photos also make their way down to the area also known as Mother’s Beach a sometimes get knocked down by rogue waves, said Michael Roy, a spokesperson for the Victoria Beach neighborhood.

“It somehow made it on the must list for your Instagram feed,” Snow said.

Last year, Victoria Beach residents had called upon the City Council to install a lifeguard at Mermaid Beach to monitor unsafe activity on the rocks and nuisance behavior like underage drinking, grilling, and littering on the beach.

“Because the Tower is such a draw for photographers, you have people walking on the rocks at unsafe times,” Roy said. 

Laguna Beach will spend $10,000 to buy a new lifeguard tower and annually spend $26,300 to staff it during the summer, according to a staff report. These costs will be absorbed by additional revenue created by the $1 per hour increase in parking revenue as well as the Measure LL sales tax fund.

The ongoing cost to the city coffers is worth it, Roy said.

“What is the cost of helicopter rescue? What is the cost of a life when someone gets swept off the rocks and drowns?” he said.

A new full-time marine safety officer will also be hired to respond to ocean-related emergencies, medical aids, and mutual aid calls to county beaches. This staffer will patrol south Laguna until 10 p.m. even though OC Parks owns and operates these beaches.

Laguna Beach Marine Safety reevaluated its operations schedule amid resident concerns about visitors taking advantage of lifeguards’ absence in the evening hours to continue risky behavior. Newport and Huntington Beach lifeguards are already standing watch until at least 10 p.m., Snow added.

“People are staying at the beach later,” Snow said. “It’s something we needed to look at doing and we’re happy to provide that.”

OC Parks added an additional private security officer in early 2020 to provide extended coverage, agency spokesperson Marisa O’Neil wrote in an email. In collaboration with Laguna Beach, OC Parks modified park ranger schedules and patrol hours to align with peak visitor times at popular destinations, including South Laguna beaches.

“Additionally OC Parks did increase staffing of OC Lifeguards in early 2020 in response to the increase in attendance associated with the COVID-19 stay at home restrictions,” O’Neil wrote.

There are ongoing meetings between county and city staffers to further enhance public safety at South Laguna beaches. In March, the Laguna Beach City Council approved a $100,000 appropriation to augment South Laguna county beach services as part of a broader Neighborhood and Environmental Protection Plan.

It’s still uncertain how exactly this money will be deployed, Snow said.

The Public Works Department is also tweaking operations to improve conditions on and near the sand. The City Council agreed to task a contractor to collect from all publish trash cans at city beaches and long Coast Highway during the weekends. Additionally, Laguna Beach will contract litter picker crews to pick up after visitors in popular neighborhoods including North Laguna, South Laguna, and Top of the World. This service will be paid $90,000 to annually work over 25 weekends, according to a staff report.

Two full-time city staffers who work Saturdays and Sundays will be reassigned to requests for graffiti removal, litter control, and public restroom maintenance at city parks and beaches.

Laguna Beach is also adding 20 concrete trash cans within neighborhoods including South Laguna, Driftwood, Victoria Beach, and Top of the World to encourage visitors to properly stow their garbage.

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