Calmer Waters

The 2022 Aquatic Trends Report

By Emily Tipping

The year 2020 was a turbulent time in the aquatics industry, with many facilities opening late if at all, which had a detrimental effect on everything from budgets and construction planning to lifeguard training and drowning prevention. And while many hoped that the summer of 2021 would represent a return to normal operations, the surging delta variant of the coronavirus and ongoing restrictions in some parts of the country meant that business as usual was still something to look forward to … eventually.

All of that said, aquatic facilities certainly fared better in 2021. For one thing, many more of them were able to actually open for business. As you'll read later in this report, in 2020, more than one-fifth (22.3%) of respondents to the 2020 Aquatic Trends survey did not open their aquatic facilities at all. In 2021, that number fell to just 3.2%. But the pandemic—with its impact on everything from supply chains to staffing, not to mention the need to adjust operations for social distancing and health requirements—continues to affect business and prevent a return to normal operations.

In these pages, we'll cover these broader trends in the aquatic industry, as well as the specific ins and outs of aquatic operations. We'll give you a big-picture view of how things currently stand, with a glimpse into how things will be trending over the next couple of years.

To begin, let's get a quick overview of our more than 500 respondents whose facilities include aquatic elements—from competitive natatoriums to municipal waterparks, splash play areas and beyond.

Respondents to the survey came from every region of the United States, but the largest number—27.8%—were from the Midwest, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. (See Figure 1.)

The next largest region was the West, with 25.3%. This includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The South Atlantic region was home to 17.8% of survey respondents. This includes Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

Some 16.3% of survey respondents said they were from the Northeastern states. This includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The South Central region was represented by 12.7% of respondents. This region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Respondents also indicated the type of community they're located in. The largest group, at 44%, represented suburban communities. Smaller numbers of respondents were from rural (29.3%) and urban (26.7%) areas. (See Figure 2.)

When it comes to the types of organizations respondents represent, the largest number (43.3%) work for parks and recreation departments and districts. They were followed by: colleges and universities (13.1%); YMCAs, YWCAs, JCCs and Boys & Girls Clubs (12.4%); campgrounds, RV parks and private or youth camps (7.7%); sports, health and fitness clubs, and medical fitness facilities (4.8%); community or private recreation and sports centers (4.4%); schools and school districts (4.3%); resorts and resort hotels (3.1%); golf or country clubs (2.7%); homeowners' associations (1.2%); and waterparks (0.8%). Another 2.2% were from other types of organizations, including churches, military installations and racquet clubs, among others. (See Figure 3.)

(Where we consider data in terms of the type of organization in the following pages, we'll be looking at parks, colleges, schools, Ys, camps and community centers.)

The survey covers a broad range of aquatic facility types, from simple, zero-depth splash play through neighborhood or hotel swimming pools to large waterparks and aquatic parks with multiple pools and other aquatic features. Most common were outdoor swimming pools. Some 58.8% of respondents said they had at least one outdoor pool, up from 57.9% in 2020. More than half (54.9%) had at least one indoor pool, virtually unchanged from 2020 (54.8%). Splash play areas were found among 38.6% of respondents' facilities, up from 35.4%. And 28.4% of respondents said they had at least one hot tub, spa or whirlpool, representing no change from 2020. (See Figure 4.)

Considering the less common, more complex facilities, 18.2% of respondents said they included an aquatic park among their facilities (up from 16.9%), while 10.2% had a waterpark (no change). (For the purposes of the survey, aquatic parks are defined as being primarily focused on swimming pools and aquatic activities, while waterparks are more focused on rides and waterslides.)

Respondents from campgrounds and parks were the most likely to report that they had at least one outdoor pool. Some 82.1% of camp respondents and 75.1% of park respondents had outdoor pools. Outdoor pools were most likely to be found where respondents' operating costs for 2020 were less than $250,000. Some 58.4% of those with outdoor pools said they spent less than $250,000 in operating costs in 2020. In fact, 34.8% had annual costs of less than $100,000.

Indoor pools were most common for respondents at colleges and schools. Some 94% of college respondents and 90.9% of school respondents said they had at least one indoor pool. More than half (56.3%) of respondents with at least one indoor pool said their annual operating costs were less than $250,000, though in contrast with outdoor pools, just 24.6% had annual costs of less than $100,000.

Park respondents were the most likely to include splash play areas. Some 63.3% of park respondents said they had at least one splash play area (up from 59.6% in 2020). They were followed by Ys, where 36.5% of respondents had a splash play area. Just over half (51%) of those with at least one splash play area said their annual costs in 2020 were less than $250,000.

Respondents from Ys and community centers were the most likely to have at least one hot tub, spa or whirlpool. Some 42.9% of Y respondents and 40.9% of community center respondents said they had hot tubs. More than half (53.9%) of those with hot tubs said their annual operating costs for 2020 were less than $250,000.

Aquatic parks were more commonly cited as a facility type for park respondents than any of the other facility types covered here. Some 30.8% of parks said they had an aquatic park. In contrast to the other types of facilities, the largest number of respondents who had at least one aquatic park (42.7%) said their annual operating costs for 2020 were $500,000 or more.

Finally, waterparks were not dominant among any facility type covered here. More than half (52%) of those with at least one waterpark said their annual operating expenditure in 2020 came to at least $500,000.

More than six in 10 respondents (60.8%) said their aquatic facilities are open year-round, while 39.2% said they operate seasonal aquatic facilities. (See Figure 5.)

Respondents from schools, colleges and Ys were the most likely to indicate that their aquatic facilities are open year-round. More than nine out of 10 school respondents (95.5%), college respondents (93.8%) and Y respondents (92.1%) said their aquatic facilities operate year-round. Respondents from camps were the most likely to have seasonal operations; only 7.7% of camp respondents said their aquatic facilities are open year-round. (See Figure 6.)

It should come as no surprise that those with indoor pools only were far more likely to operate year-round than those who only have outdoor facilities. Among those who only operate indoor pools, 94.9% said those facilities operate year-round. This compares with 20.2% of those with outdoor-only facilities.

Among those respondents whose aquatic facilities operate seasonally, May was the most common month for the start of the aquatic season, while most facilities were likely to end their seasons in September. Some 56.1% of those with seasonal operations begins in May, and 31.3% said they open for the season in June. As summer comes to an end, 30.3% of seasonal aquatic operations close down in August, while more than half (53.5%) shut down in September.

Budget Issues

With supply chain challenges and inflationary pressures, it should come as no surprise that respondents to the survey expected their overall operating expenditure to be up sharply in 2021. After an increase in 2020 to an average of $620,000, 6.9% higher than the average for 2019, respondents reported an expected average operating cost of $670,000 for 2021, a year-over-year increase of 8.1%. They expect a further 6% increase in 2022, to an average annual aquatic operating expenditure of $710,000. (See Figure 7.)

Respondents from Ys, parks and rec centers had the highest average operating cost in 2020. Y respondents reported spending an average of $860,000. They were followed by parks ($750,000) and rec centers ($730,000). Camps reported the lowest average operating costs by far, spending an average of $210,000 in 2020. (See Figure 8.)

From 2020 to 2021, most types of respondents reported an increase to their average aquatic operating expenditures, with the greatest increase reported by rec centers. Rec center respondents reported an average annual expenditure of $1,040,000 in 2021, up 42.5% from the average for 2020 of $730,000. Camps saw a 19% increase, from an average of $210,000 in 2020 to $250,000 in 2021. Only college respondents reported a decrease, with average operating expenditure falling 6.7%, from $300,000 in 2020 to $280,000 in 2021.

Only respondents from schools reported no change to their operating costs from 2020 to 2022. Among other respondents, the greatest increase over that time frame was expected by those from rec centers and camps. Rec center respondents projected a 31.5% increase in operating costs, from $730,000 in 2020 to $960,000 in 2022, while camps projected a 28.6% increase, from $210,000 in 2020 to $270,000 in 2022. Smaller increases were expected from 2020 to 2022 by respondents from parks (up 13.3%), Ys (up 10.5%) and colleges (up 3.3%).

Comparing the operating expenditures of facilities that feature only indoor or only outdoor swimming pools, the data shows a substantial increase from 2019 to 2020 for those with indoor-only pools, while those whose facilities only include outdoor swimming pools reported a slight decrease, From 2019 to 2020, respondents with indoor swimming pools reported an increase of 35.7%, from $280,000 to $380,000. In that same time frame, those with outdoor pools reported a decrease of 9.1%, from $220,000 to $200,000. (See Figure 9.)

Looking forward, those with indoor pools projected a 7.9% increase in their average annual operating expenditures from 2020 to 2022, from $380,000 to $410,000. For those with outdoor pools, a 15% increase from $200,000 to $230,000 was projected.

Some 12.5% of survey respondents reported that they had built a new aquatic facility in the past three years, down from 13.2% in 2020 and 14% in 2019. Respondents from rec centers, Ys and schools were the only facility types to see a growth in the number of respondents reporting that they had built new facilities. Rec centers were the most likely to have built new facilities, with 18.2% indicating they had done so (up from 16.7% in 2020). They were followed by Ys (17.5%, up from 10.8%), parks (14.7%, down from 17.8%), and schools (13.6%, up from 9.7%). (See Figure 10.)

Pool closures continued to be rare among respondents. In 2021, 3% of all aquatic respondents said they had permanently closed a pool without building a replacement, down from 3.4% in 2020. The number who replaced a swimming pool with a splash pad remained stable, falling slightly from 1.1% in 2020 to 1% in 2021. (See Figure 11.)

Respondents from camps and Ys were the most likely to report that they had permanently closed an aquatic facility over the past three years. Some 5.1% of camp respondents and 4.9% of Y respondents said they had done so. Respondents from rec centers were the most likely to indicate that they had replaced a swimming pool with a splash pad, with 4.5% indicating they had taken this action. They were followed by camp respondents, 2.6% of whom had replaced a swimming pool with a splash pad over the past three years.

Water & Resource Management

Survey respondents were asked about the various kinds of systems used to maintain water quality at their aquatic facilities, as well as their use of secondary disinfection methods such as UV.

Sand filters have been a dominant method of pool filtration for some time, and this year's survey shows little change. More than two-thirds (67.5%) of respondents said they currently use sand filtration, up from 66.2% in 2020. D.E., or diatomaceous earth, filters are used by 17.5% of respondents, up from 16% in 2020. And regenerative media filters (RMFs) were used by 10.2% of respondents, up from 9.2% in 2020. (See Figure 12.)

Representing no change from last year, 80% of respondents said they currently use chlorination systems at their facilities. Another 6.9% use bromination systems, down from 11.7% in 2020. More than one-third (36.5%) said they currently use a tablet chlorination system, and 6.7% are using salt chlorine generators.

Looking forward, 13.1% of respondents said they had plans to add new systems or update existing systems at their aquatic facilities over the next three years, up from 11.6%. Respondents from rec centers and Ys were the most likely to have such plans, with 18.2% of rec center respondents and 15.9% of Y respondents reporting they had plans to add or update systems.

When it comes to filtration systems, respondents were most likely to be planning to add RMFs. Some 20.9% of those with plans for updates said they would be adding RMFs. Another 16.4% were planning to add D.E. filters, and 9% were planning to add sand filters.

The number of respondents planning to add salt chlorine generators has also been on the rise over the past few years. Some 13.4% of those with plans to add or update equipment at their facilities said they would be adding salt chlorine generation, up from 12% in 2020 and 10.5% in 2019.

Secondary disinfection is recommended by the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) as a way to improve water quality and better prevent recreational water illnesses. More than one-third (35.2%) of respondents said they currently employ some form of secondary disinfection at their facilities, representing virtually no change from 2020, when 35.8% said they used secondary disinfection. UV systems were the most common form of secondary disinfection by far, with 88.5% of respondents who use secondary disinfection indicating that they rely on UV systems, up from 78.8% in 2020. Another 6.9% are using ozone systems (down from 10.8% in 2020), and 2.9% are using AOP (advanced oxidation process) systems, down from 4.1%. Some 1.7% said they use some other form of secondary disinfection system. (See Figure 13.)

Respondents from Ys, colleges and parks were the most likely to report that they currently use a form of secondary disinfection at their aquatic facilities. Some 41.3% of Y respondents said they currently used secondary disinfection, while 40.6% of college respondents and 38.5% of park respondents do so. Camp respondents were the least likely to use secondary disinfection, with just 15.4% indicating they do so, up from 9.4% in 2020. (See Figure 14.)

The higher a respondent's average annual operating expenditure, the more likely they were to indicate that they use secondary disinfection at their facilities. Well over half (60.6%) of those whose operating costs are more than $500,000 a year said they currently use secondary disinfection, up from 58.8% in 2020. For those whose annual operating costs fall between $250,000 and $499,999, 40% are currently using secondary disinfection, up from 37.5% in 2020. And for those whose costs are lower than $250,000, 25.4% are currently using secondary disinfection, representing little change from 2020 (25%).

Respondents with indoor pools only are far more likely to use secondary disinfection than those with outdoor-only pools. Some 36.7% of those with indoor pools only said they currently use secondary disinfection, up from 28.2% in 2020. For outdoor respondents, just 5% said they use secondary disinfection of any kind, down from 10.4%.

Looking forward, among those respondents who are planning to add or update their water treatment systems over the next few years, 41.8% are planning to add UV, representing virtually no change from 2020, when 41.3% had such plans. Another 16.4% are planning to add AOP systems (up from 14.7%), and 10.4% are planning to add ozone systems (down from 12%).

Automation systems that help manage chemicals and other pool filtration processes have become increasingly popular. Only 7.2% of respondents in 2021 said they use no types of controller on their pool. More than three-quarters (78%) said they currently use chemical controllers, while 77.2% use chemical feed pumps. Another 38.1% use backwash controllers. (See Figure 15.)

The number of respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey who deploy strategies and tools to conserve resources has been falling over the past few years. In 2019, 71% of respondents were conserving resources. In 2021, 68.1% of respondents were doing so. Nearly half of respondents (49.2%) said they have systems and strategies for conserving chemicals (down from 53.8%), while 47.5% aim to conserve energy (up from 47%), and 42.6% aim to conserve water (down from 45%).

Respondents from schools, colleges and rec centers were the most likely to report that they currently have systems and equipment in place to help conserve resources. More than nine out of 10 (90.5%) school respondents said they do so, up from 84.4% in 2020 and 70.6% in 2019. More than seven in 10 (71.4%) school respondents said they aim to conserve water, while 61.9% conserve energy and 57.1% conserve chemicals. Around three-quarters of respondents from colleges (75.8%) and rec centers (75%) said they currently aim to conserve resources. Camp respondents were the least likely to report that they have systems and strategies for conserving resources, though half (50%) currently do so, down from 78.1% in 2020.

The tools most commonly used at aquatic facilities to conserve chemicals, energy and water include LED lighting (used by 48.1% of all respondents, up from 46.1% in 2019); high-efficiency heaters (27.9%, down from 29% in 2020); and variable frequency drives, or VFDs (23.3%, up from 21.8% in 2020). (See Figure 16.)

Equipment

It's become almost cliché to suggest that the rectangular swimming pools of one's childhood are a thing of the past, but the fact is, swimming pools and aquatic facilities come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you're operating a 50-year-old rectangular pool or a more complex aquatic complex, you need to outfit your facility with the proper equipment to support safety, recreational and competitive programming, guest comfort and more.

When it comes to aquatic respondents' facilities, most have standard equipment like lifeguard stands and lane lines, while many include equipment that supports competitive events, recreational and wellness programs and more. Here is a list of in-pool and poolside equipment commonly found among respondents' facilities:

  • Lifeguard Stand: 78.5%
  • Lane Lines: 76.1%
  • Pool Lift or Other Accessibility Equipment: 64%
  • Pool Exercise Equipment: 52.4%
  • Diving Boards: 46.6%
  • Starting Platforms: 46%
  • Pool Slides: 40.3%
  • Shade Structures: 38.7%
  • Zero-Depth Entry: 38.5%
  • Water Basketball Equipment: 29.8%
  • Scoreboard: 27.5%
  • Water Polo Equipment: 20%
  • Pool Inflatables: 19.2%
  • Water Playground: 18%
  • Water Volleyball Equipment: 14.6%
  • Teaching Platform: 14%
  • Lazy River: 12.8%
  • Swim Wall or Pool Bulkhead: 10.5%
  • Poolside Cabanas: 9.9%
  • Diving Platforms: 9.3%
  • Swim Platform 9.1%
  • Poolside Climbing Wall: 7.9%
  • Pool Obstacle Course: 6.1%
  • Lily Pads/Water Walk: 5.7%
  • Underwater Treadmill or Bike: 3.6%
  • Wave Pool: 2.6%
  • River Raft Ride: 1.2%
  • Surf Machine: 1.2%
  • Water Coaster: 0.8%

Features that saw growth of at least one percentage point from 2020 to 2021 included: shade structures (up 4.3 percentage points); pool slides (up 3.6); zero-depth entry (up 3.3); and pool inflatables (up 1.2).

Respondents from parks were more likely than others to include pool slides, poolside climbing walls, lily pads or water walks, water playgrounds, zero-depth entry, lazy rivers and surf machines.

College respondents were the most likely to include diving platforms, lane lines, water polo equipment, water basketball equipment, water volleyball equipment, swim platforms and swim walls or pool bulkheads.

Respondents from schools were the most likely to include diving boards, starting platforms and scoreboards.

Y respondents were the most likely to include pool lifts and other accessibility equipment, pool obstacle courses, pool exercise equipment, and underwater treadmills or bikes.

Finally, respondents from rec centers were the most likely to include lifeguard stands, shade structures, poolside cabanas, wave pools, teaching platforms, pool inflatables, river raft rides, and water coasters.

The number of respondents with plans to add features at their facilities fell in 2021 to 24.3%, down from 26.3% in 2020 and 32% in 2019. Respondents from camps and rec centers were the most likely to have such plans. Some 33.3% of camp respondents and 31.8% of rec center respondents said they would be adding features at their facilities over the next three years. Respondents from schools and colleges were the least likely to be planning to add any new features at their facilities. (See Figure 18.)

The 10 most commonly planned additions at aquatic facilities include:

  • Poolside climbing walls (planned by 28.2% of those who will be adding features, up from 21.2% in 2020)
  • Shade structures (19.4%, down from 28.2%)
  • Pool inflatables (17.7%, down from 21.2%)
  • Pool slides (15.3%, no change)
  • Underwater treadmills or bikes (12.9%, up from 12.4%)
  • Pool lifts and accessibility equipment (12.1%, down from 14.7%)
  • Pool obstacle courses (12.1%, did not appear in 2020)
  • Pool exercise equipment (12.1%, down from 12.9%)
  • Lifeguard stands (11.3%, up from 10%)
  • Water playgrounds (11.3%, down from 14.1%)

Some 28.6% of Y respondents said they had plans to add features to their aquatic facilities, down from 30.3% in 2020. They were more likely than other respondents to be planning to add: pool slides, water coasters, river raft rides, poolside climbing walls, pool obstacle courses, lily pads or water walks, diving platforms, diving boards, wave pools, surf machines, water polo equipment, water basketball equipment, water volleyball equipment, scoreboards, swim platforms, and swim walls or pool bulkheads.

Respondents from camps were the most likely to be planning to add pool inflatables, pool exercise equipment, underwater treadmills or bikes, zero-depth entry, shade structures and lifeguard stands.

Rec center respondents were the most likely to be planning to add starting platforms, lane lines, teaching platforms, pool lifts and accessibility equipment, and poolside cabanas.

Finally, respondents from parks were the most likely to be planning to add water playgrounds and lazy rivers.

Programming

While not every aquatic facility provides programming (splash pads, for example, or swimming pools at campgrounds), most respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey indicated that they do provide programs at their aquatic facilities, such as swimming lessons, aquatic exercise and birthday parties. Some 96% of respondents said they do currently provide programming at their facilities, representing virtually no change from 2020, when 95.9% provided programming. A full 100% of respondents from schools, Ys and rec centers said they currently provide programming at their facilities. Respondents from camps were the least likely to do so, though nearly nine out of 10 (89.5%) camp respondents said they do provide programming at their aquatic facilities. (See Figure 19.)

The following are the types of programs covered in the survey and their prevalence among respondents' offerings:

  • Learn-to-Swim Programs (77.7%)
  • Lifeguard Training (77.1%)
  • Leisure Swim Time (74.1%)
  • Lap Swim Time (72.5%)
  • Aquatic Aerobics (63.9%)
  • Birthday Parties (57.2%)
  • Water Safety Training (55%)
  • Youth Swim Teams (54.8%)
  • Swim Meets & Other Competitions (48.2%)
  • Aquatic Programs for Those With Physical Disabilities (36.5%)
  • School Swim Teams (35.1%)
  • Aquatic Programs for Those With Developmental Disabilities (30.9%)
  • Water Walking (29.3%)
  • Dive-In Movies (23.1%)
  • Aquatic Therapy (17.5%)
  • Adult Swim Teams (17.5%)
  • Aqua-Yoga & Other Balance Programs (20.3%)
  • Diving Programs & Teams (16.9%)
  • Water Polo (16.5%)
  • Collegiate Swim Teams (11.6%)
  • Doggie Dips (10.2%)

Programs that saw an increase of at least one percentage point over 2020 include: lifeguard training (up 1 percentage point); school swim teams (up 1.8); aquatic programs for those with physical disabilities (up 1.9); and aquatic programs for those with developmental disabilities (up 2.9).

Whether the programming is aquatic or not, Ys tend to provide a wider variety of offerings than other respondent types, and this year's Aquatic Trends survey proves no exception. Respondents from Ys were more likely than others to provide: learn-to-swim programming; youth swim teams; aquatic programming for those with physical disabilities; aquatic aerobics; aqua-yoga and balance programs; water walking; leisure swim time; lap swim time; aquatic therapy; water safety training; and lifeguard training.

Respondents from schools were the most likely to provide school swim teams; aquatic programming for those with developmental disabilities; swim meets and competitions; and diving programs and teams.

College respondents were the most likely to provide adult swim teams; collegiate swim teams; water polo; and dive-in movies.

Finally, respondents from parks were the most likely to provide birthday parties and doggie dips at their aquatic facilities.

Slightly fewer respondents in 2021 said that they have plans to add additional programs at their facilities over the next three years. Some 23.1% of respondents said they had such plans, down from 25.5% in 2020. Respondents from rec centers were by far the most likely to indicate that they would be adding programming at their aquatic facilities. In fact, the number of rec center respondents with plans to add programs more than doubled, from 15.4% in 2020 to 31.8% in 2021. Camp respondents were also more likely to be planning to add programs in 2021, with 20.5% indicating they had such plans, up from 17.6% in 2020. School respondents were the least likely to be planning new programming, with just 9.1% indicating they had such plans, down from 21.9% in 2020. (See Figure 20.)

The top 10 most commonly planned program additions include:

  • Programs for those with physical disabilities (planned by 28.8% of those who will be adding programs, down from 30% in 2019)
  • Programs for those with developmental disabilities (28.8%, up from 26.1%)
  • Aqua-yoga and other balance programs (28%, up from 24.2%)
  • Aquatic aerobics (24.6%, up from 18.8%)
  • Dive-in movies (23.7%, down from 29.1%)
  • Learn-to-swim programs (19.5%, up from 16.4%)
  • Youth swim teams (16.1%, up from 10.3%)
  • Adult swim teams (16.1%, up from 10.9%)
  • Birthday parties (13.6%, up from 9.7%)
  • Doggie dips (13.6%, up from 9.1%)

When it comes to learn-to-swim programming, children are generally the audience we think of, but in fact, many facilities offer learn-to-swim programming for a wide variety of ages. We asked the 77.7% of respondents who offer learn-to-swim programs some further questions about the audience they reach with their programs.

Almost all (94.8%) of those who currently provide learn-to-swim programs said that they have programs for children ages 17 and younger, down from 96% in 2020. Another 71.9% provide learn-to-swim programs for parents and babies or toddlers, such as mommy—or daddy—and me classes. Almost two-thirds (65.2%) said they provide learn-to-swim programs for adults ages 18 and up, and 36.1% provide learn-to-swim programs for seniors. (See Figure 21.)

There are many audiences that tend to be left out when it comes to aquatic programming, with racial and economic disparities weighing heavily on who does and does not learn to swim. In fact, USA Swimming reports that 79% of children in low-income families have little to no swimming ability, and 64% of black children and 45% of Hispanic children have little to no swimming ability, compared with 40% of white children. Addressing these disparities is an important mission, and there are grants and programs across the country that aim to extend the reach of aquatic into these communities, as well as addressing fear of the water.

More than one-third (33.8%) of respondents with learn-to-swim programs said they currently have a low-income outreach program, up from 29.4% in 2020. Another 21% said they engage in minority outreach, up from 17.9% in 2020. And 23.1% offer learn-to-swim programs designed to help the water-phobic overcome their fear, down from 23.7% in 2020. (See Figure 22.)

Y respondents were the most likely to reach out to low-income and minority audiences for their learn-to-swim programs, while rec centers were the most likely to provide learn-to-swim programs to help overcome water fears. A full 60% of Y respondents said they currently engage in outreach to low-income audiences, while 41.7% engaged in outreach to minorities. Nearly half (47.4%) of rec center respondents said they had programs for helping people overcome their fear of the water. (See Figure 23.)

Water Safety

While more than half (55%) of respondents provide water safety training as part of their programming lineup, helping to equip their community members with skills they can take anywhere, facilities also step up and ensure they have well-trained lifeguards, as well as other methods to keep swimmers safe in the water.

A majority of respondents—91.5%-said a lifeguard is on duty at least some of the time during their operating hours, up from 90.6% in 2020. Nearly eight out of 10 (79.5%) said a lifeguard is on duty at all times the facility is open (down from 82.8% in 2020), while 12% said a lifeguard is on duty during at least some hours of operation. Just 8.5% said there is never a lifeguard on duty at their facilities, down from 9.4% in 2020.

Respondents from Ys were the most likely to report having a lifeguard on duty at least some of the time. In fact, 100% of Y respondents said a lifeguard is on duty at least some of the time, with 95.2% indicating there is always a lifeguard on duty, and 4.8% reporting a lifeguard is on duty at least some of the time. Respondents from colleges were also highly likely to have a lifeguard on duty at least some of the time, with just 1.5% indicating there is never a lifeguard on duty at their facilities. Some 78.8% of college respondents said a lifeguard is always on duty when their aquatic facilities are operating, and 19.7% said a lifeguard is on duty at least some of the time. (See Figure 24.)

Camp respondents were the most likely to report that there was never a lifeguard on duty at their facilities, though the number was relatively small—just 7.9% of camp respondents said there is never a lifeguard on duty at their facilities. This is down dramatically from 2020, when 21.2% of camp respondents said their aquatic facilities were not covered by lifeguards.

Many facilities take a layered approach to drowning prevention, and while having a lifeguard on duty is the most essential practice in this regard, other methods can provide an extra layer of protection for swimmers. When it comes to drowning prevention, the methods most often deployed by respondents include:

  • Lifeguard on Duty: 91.5%, up from 90.6% in 2020
  • Life Preservers Required for Less-Skilled Swimmers: 49%, down slightly from 51.6%
  • Video or Other In-Pool System for Detecting Swimmers in Trouble: 5.3%, down slightly from 5.4%
  • Safety Device That Sounds an Alarm When Submerged: 4.5%, up from 4%
  • Other: 5.7%
  • None: 5.9%, down from 7%

The Model Aquatic Health Code

First released in the summer of 2014, the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) was established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to help state and local government officials develop and update their pool codes based on the most up-to-date science and agreed-on best practices.

The codes that govern pool operations, including guidance on how and how often to test the water, how facilities are built, how chemicals are used to protect swimmers from disease and so on, have traditionally been created at the local and state level. Because of this, a sort of crazy quilt of regulations exists across the country. The MAHC aims to establish standardized guidance based on industry consensus around best practices. So, while local and state governments are still creating their own codes, they can do so more easily using the MAHC.

What's more, the MAHC is updated on a regular basis, which means those who use the code to help establish their own local regulations can easily stay on top of the latest guidance. The current edition of the code was released in 2018, and is the third edition of the code. The fourth edition is expected to be released by early summer.

There's been little change in the percentage of respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey who say they are familiar with the MAHC. More than half (56.4%) of respondents in 2021 said they are familiar with the MAHC, down slightly from 57.3% in 2020. Some 20.3% said they are very familiar with the MAHC, and 36.1% are somewhat familiar. (See Figure 25.)

When it comes to ensuring that the MAHC is updated on a regular basis, the Council for the Model Aquatic Health Code (CMAHC), created in 2013, acts as a clearinghouse for input and advice. CMAHC members take part in the process of updating the code and their input is considered as the CDC revises and releases the next edition. The next CMAHC Conference is planned for 2023.

Just 6.4% of respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey said they participate in the CMAHC. Just 0.8% are on the committee itself, and 5.6% said they have provided input.

The code is not a federal law, which means government agencies can choose whether to adopt it at all, whether to use all of the MAHC or just part of it, or whether to modify all or part of it to fit their needs. We asked respondents whether the regulatory agency that governs their facilities has adopted the MAHC, either fully or partially. The largest group of respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey—45.3%—were unsure whether their regulatory agency had adopted portions of or all of the MAHC, representing little change over the past couple of years. Also relatively unchanged is the number of respondents who said their agency had not adopted any potion of the code—35.1% in 2021, up from 33.8% in 2020. The number who said their regulatory agency had fully adopted the MAHC increased from 4.9% in 2020 to 5.8% in 2021, while those who said their agency has adopted portions of the code fell from 16.9% to 13.8%. (See Figure 26.)

COVID-19 Mitigation Measures

While many of us were surely hopeful that the summer of 2021 would bring an end to the widespread closures and perhaps even many of the measures deployed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the rise of the delta variant, along with a wave of infections that persisted throughout the summer put an end to that possibility.

That said, while more than one-fifth (22.3%) of respondents in 2020 did not open their aquatic facilities at all, in 2021, just 3.2% of respondents said they did not open their aquatic facilities for the season. What's more, two-thirds (66.7%) of respondents in 2021 said they had opened their facilities according to their regular schedule, dwarfing the 17.3% who opened on a regular schedule in 2020. (See Figure 27.)

When asked about measures they had taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at their facilities, the vast majority of respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey—92.8%—said they had deployed at least one of the strategies covered.

Schools were the most likely to have taken measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In fact, 100% of school respondents said they had taken at least one measure to help stop the spread at their facilities. They were followed by Ys (98.4%) and colleges (97%).

The most common measures taken included capacity limits (deployed by 30% of respondents) and social distancing measures (21.7%). Another 19.5% said they were doing more cleaning at their facilities to help prevent the spread of illness, and 8.2% were limiting the programming offered at their facilities. (See Figure 28.)

Schools were the most likely to report that they had limited capacity, with 40.9% indicating they had done so. They were followed by camps, where 38.5% of respondents said they had limited capacity at their aquatic facilities to help control COVID-19. Social distancing requirements were most likely to be implemented by respondents from rec centers (27.3%) and Ys (27%). Additional cleaning measures were most likely to be found at rec centers, where 27.3% said they had done more cleaning to help mitigate the spread of the disease. They were followed by parks (24.1%).

Industry Challenges

Perhaps not surprising in light of this year's "Great Resignation," staffing is the top issue of concern for respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey. In fact, staffing was far more likely to be named a top concern than budgetary issues, which generally hold the top spot.

Nearly three-quarters (73.6%) of respondents said staffing issues were a top industry concern, up dramatically from 52.4% in 2020. More than half said that budgetary issues (55.8%, down from 58.9% in 2020) or equipment facility and maintenance (51%, up from 49.1%) were among the biggest challenges facing the industry. (See Figure 29.)

While the most dramatic increase was seen in the number of respondents who feel that staffing issues are one of the industry's biggest challenges, the percentage who named outreach to minorities and other underrepresented populations has been on the rise over the past several years. In 2021, 17.1% of respondents to the Aquatic Trends survey said that outreach to underrepresented populations was a top industry concern, up from 14.8% in 2020, and 11.6% in 2019. Respondents from parks were more likely than others to indicate that outreach of this kind was a top concern, at 21.7%. They were followed by Ys, where 17.5% feel outreach to minorities and underrepresented audiences is a top industry concern.

While the top three concerns named by all respondents were also the top concerns named by respondents from the various facility types, there was a great deal of variation. For example, Ys were by far the most likely to indicate that staffing is a top industry challenge, while camp respondents were much less likely to report that staffing was a top challenge.

For parks, 79.3% named staffing as their top challenge, up from 59% in 2020. This was followed by budgetary issues (61.8%) and equipment and facility maintenance (47.9%)

College respondents were the most likely to name budgetary issues a top concern, with nearly seven out of 10 (69.7%, down slightly from 70.1% in 2020) calling this a top issue for the industry. Another 62.1% of college respondents named staffing issues a top concern (up from 43.3%), and 43.9% said equipment and facility maintenance was a top concern (down from 55.7%).

School respondents were the most likely to name equipment and facility maintenance as a top concern. Nearly three-quarters (72.7%) of school respondents said that maintenance was a top industry issue, up from 53.3% in 2020. Another 59.1% named budgetary issues (up from 56.1%), while 54.5% said staffing is a top concern (up from 50%).

Nearly nine out of 10 (88.9%) Y respondents said staffing issues are a top concern for the aquatics industry, up from 51.5% in 2020. More than half (52.4%) of these respondents said equipment and facility maintenance was a top concern (up from 43.9%), while 42.9% said budgets were a top issue (down from 56.1%).

Interestingly, among camp respondents, staffing, budgetary issues and equipment and facility maintenance were all named a top industry concern by 53.8%.

For rec centers, nearly three-quarters (72.7%) said staffing is a top issue (up from 41%), while 63.6% named equipment and facility maintenance a top concern (up from 38.5%), and 54.5% said budgetary issues are a top concern (down from 61.5%).

Asked to enumerate the greatest challenge for their facilities over the past year, most respondents said, simply, "staffing," while many others said, "COVID," but many offered a broader description of how they had been challenged:

"Because of the lack of lifeguard classes for quite some time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is seemingly a widespread lifeguard shortage. As a result, I have struggled with finding staff, shift coverage has been an issue, and many of the students who are still guarding do not feel the same passion they once did for their work."

"Deterioration of infrastructure. Many items are reaching the end of their life cycle, and budgetary restraints are making it difficult to repair and replace."

"Staffing and trying to forecast what the future will be. The demand for pool time balanced with keeping people safe and social distancing."

"Guests who do not want to comply with new safety regulations related to COVID-19."

"Vendors not having product because there is a shortage of chlorine, which sometimes forces us to close the pool temporarily."

"We have less than half the staff we need to operate fully. The capacity restrictions we implemented at our seasonal facility weren't COVID precautions required by public health, they were safety-related due to lack of staff."

"Since COVID hit, our city leaders were uneasy about how it would affect the city's bottom line, so we were told to save money anywhere and everywhere. We put off purchasing and replacing some big equipment to save money. Now we're having more big-ticket equipment breaking, which needs replacing, for example, pump motors, sand filters and lane lines."

"Certainly, the pandemic was a challenge. As soon as our state allowed programming, we reopened our swim lesson program—offering lessons with parents in the pool and instructors on the deck. In June of 2021, we reopened to a regular schedule of swim lessons. Staffing has now become the biggest challenge. We are unable to support a full program of lessons due to a shortage of swim instructors and lifeguards. We already offer our own training as staff are certified instructors, but it is still difficult to attract staff."

"Our indoor teaching pool was closed until the county ruled that swim lessons/drowning prevention was essential!" RM



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