Risk Management Considerations for Public Recreational Waterfronts

Whether it’s ocean-side, a lake-front or a river park, recreational waterfronts enhance the vitality of a community, providing recreational and leisure opportunities to residents and visitors alike.

British Columbia’s beautiful natural waterfronts attract people both as visitors and investors, contributing to local economies by drawing tourism dollars, and increasing commercial and residential development. In 2016 alone, the tourism industry in BC generated $17 billion in revenue. Tourism revenue in turn pays for public facilities, programs and services that might otherwise not be affordable in those communities.

The risk factor

But there are real risks associated with BC’s public recreational waterfronts. The Lifesaving Society’s 2018 Canadian Drowning Report contains the latest Canada-wide statistics from 2016 showing 297 unintentional water-related deaths, thankfully a welcome decrease from 311 recorded for 2015. But, of the 56 drownings that occurred in British Columbia in 2016, 82% took place in natural settings and most during recreational activities.

In BC, the provincial government owns the foreshore of all waterfronts and requires owners of waterfront properties to allow the public to access the water. As such, the responsibility falls to public waterfront property owners to provide the best possible information to the public about the risks associated with the use of their waterfront.

This information, including appropriate signage and public health information on local recreation water quality, assists the public to make informed decisions.

For waterfront property owners, operational practices like promoting water safety information, providing self-rescue equipment onsite, or making sure a lifeguard is present will go a long way to preventing tragic outcomes.



What is your risk management strategy?

If you are an land managers, developer, promoter or owner of a waterfront property, it falls on you to take reasonable care to ensure the public’s safety by not obstructing access to the water, and by warning the public of all hazards that may be associated with the site.

The first step is to develop a risk management strategy, starting with a detailed audit of your waterfront property. Examine how the property is used including adjacent activities, and assess the condition of the natural environment. Be sure to include the shore-line, tides, currents and bottom conditions where activities may occur. This will help discern what activities are reasonably safe for people to pursue.

Remember, the risk of drowning and water-related injuries are statistically highest with boating and swimming activities.

The next step is to ensure any additions and improvements to the property do not create unintended risk. If you have provided public washrooms, playgrounds, docks or any other structures – they must all be constructed to meet regulations and be maintained in good condition.

Remember to also carefully review the locations of features such as walkways, play structures and equipment. Perform regular inspections and continually monitor the natural environment, your built environment, and activities undertaken on or near your property.

To supervise or not to supervise?

When promoting your waterfront to the public or when directly delivering programs such as day camps, a key consideration must be whether or not to provide safety supervision. If your property is popular with families, near a high population area, or is used by groups of children, providing safety supervision is a prudent practice.

Designate an area at, on, or near the water where supervised activity will take place. Ensure you have a safety plan in place that directs the supervision of participants by designated, competent and trained personnel.

Remember, drownings are very rare where lifeguards are present, less than 2% in any setting, natural or human-made.

When allowing vendors to operate on your property, oversight of their operations is essential. Before granting a business licence, specify that you require a safety plan. The safety plan should include:

  • a description of any water-based activities, including supervision and admission procedures;
  • any risks associated with those activities, and
  • a strategy to control and minimize those risks.

Ongoing monitoring of the vendor’s services will go a long way in maintaining the waterfront as a beneficial feature of your community.

Prevention is the key

Managing waterfront assets can provide significant positive benefits for your community but they demand a thoughtful balance between risk and reward.

By creating sound practices, policies and procedure, land managers and owners minimize or eliminate unacceptable risks to the public and to their employees. By doing this you will also protect your community from possible adverse financial impact and damage to your community’s reputation that can occur as a result of preventable incidents and accidents.


Cheryl Sibany is the Manager of Safety Services & Lifesaving Sport with the Lifesaving Society BC & Yukon Branch. Cheryl has extensive experience in training aquatic and recreation staff, working in a variety of recreation settings including; Municipal, YMCAs and the private sector. That valuable experience contributes to her understanding of how safe aquatic and recreation programs should operate in a variety of contexts. Cheryl is a writer and the producer of the Lifesaving Society’s, Are You Ready? Workbook and DVD. She can be contacted at: cheryls@lifesaving.bc.ca

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