Advocates await Gov. Pritzker’s signature on new lakefront safety bill 

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By: Jake Schell (Loyola Senior)

Water safety advocates scored a major victory in the last month with the successful advancement of the Lake Michigan Rescue Equipment Act. 

The bill passed unanimously through the Illinois State House on March 2, and passed through the House Human Services Committee on March 30. It now goes to the desk of Governor Pritzker to be signed into law.

The bill comes after a decade-long grassroots community campaign for lakefront water safety — an issue exasperated by the drowning death of 19-year-old Miguel Cisneros at Pratt Pier last summer.

State Representative Kelly Cassidy (D-14), head sponsor of the bill, said, “Fundamentally, this is about preventing tragedies like Miguel’s death. Raising awareness of the power of Lake Michigan and helping people understand the risks and ways to stay safe is top of mind.”

According to the Great Lakes Rescue Project, there have been 1,044 drowning deaths on the Great Lakes since 2010 — roughly half of which were on Lake Michigan. And citywide, Roger’s Park holds the highest rate of drowning deaths of any neighborhood, a title it has held since 2010.

Elsewhere in Chicago this season, other drownings have emphasized the need for lakefront safety. An unidentified drowned man was found on Feb. 19 in Hyde Park, and a Chicago college student had to be rescued from Lake Michigan ice on Feb. 4.

On Nov. 5, 23-year-old Iñaki Bascaran was also found drowned in the Chicago River. His father said, “This could have happened to anyone. Iñaki would want his story to stay in people’s hearts and help them avoid irreversible tragedies.”

Rep. Cassidy was joined by 21 other state representative sponsors and multiple long-time community advocates, including Halle Quezada, the co-founder of the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety (CAWS), who played an instrumental role in drafting the bill. 

If signed into law, the bill would require owners of lakefront piers and drop-offs to install public rescue equipment, including life ring buoys. Local government entities would also be required to report fatal and non-fatal lakefront drownings to the Department of Public Health, who would then analyze the data to provide future safety recommendations. 

According to Quezada, the bill would have been impossible without Miguel Cisneros and the actions of the community.

“It wasn’t a coincidence that progress was made after his drowning —  his friends, family and mother pushed through their grief to ensure it,” she said. “The strength of the witnesses to speak out was absolutely integral to the water safety progress we are seeing now. 

If signed into law, the bill would provide park districts one year to implement its safety provisions. And despite past struggles with the CPD over “legal liability concerns”, Rep. Cassidy says the District has been cooperative.

“The new leadership of the Chicago Park District has already begun the process of complying with the law,” said Rep. Cassidy. “They expect life rings to be installed along the length of the lakefront by this swim season.”

Although a major victory, water safety advocates say the fight is far from over. Quezada is currently drafting another bill, HB5111, that would update existing laws to require water safety education in schools.

Quezada said, “Drowning takes the lives of more school-aged children than fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and active shooters combined. Ensuring kids have a common language of water safety through repeated messaging each year at school will save lives.”

For Quezada, the bill is also a part of Cisneros’ legacy. Illinois would be the first state on Lake Michigan to implement a lakefront safety bill—setting an important precedent for cities and states across the Great Lakes region.

Quezada said that although “None of this work can bring him back,” the bill is “absolutely a part of Miguel’s legacy of protecting and cherishing people. You can feel it in the community that misses him so dearly.”

Rep. Cassidy further highlighted the bill as a triumph for advocates and victims alike. In a Facebook post announcing the House vote, she emphasized the importance of community organizing, saying, “This is a victory that we should be proud of! From pushback to unanimous victory is a testament to always keep going despite the odds.”

As the fight for lakefront safety continues, readers are encouraged to visit the following websites for more information on the bills, waterfront safety, and how to get involved:

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