A lifeguard chair sits empty at a closed pool at the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Norfolk, Va., on June 21. (Steve Helber/AP)
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — At a naval base that’s home to many sailors in the special warfare community, a large tarp is pulled over the base’s only outdoor lap pool.
Lounge chairs are piled in high stacks and what little water was visible in the swimming pool on a recent visit appeared a dark shade of green.
Elsewhere at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, a water park that’s highly popular with the children of service members is open one less day a week this summer.
In the sweltering days of summer, members of the military and their families like to cool off by using low-cost swimming pools found on many bases around the world.
But this year the annual tradition of swimming laps under the sun and whizzing down waterslides behind heavily protected gates is taking a hit due to automatic budget cuts.
Some installations are closing their outdoor swimming pools altogether, while many others are reducing hours or opening fewer days each week.
The pools and water parks are typically open to active-duty personnel, family members, military retirees, Defense Department civilians and their guests. The costs can range from free to just a few dollars. The cutbacks are one tangible way the automatic spending cuts are affecting the broader military community.
“Everybody’s a little bit emotional,” said Michael Martin, a spokesman for Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. “People are a little upset ... These decisions are tough. They really are. But in the budgetary climate we’re working in, these are the types of decisions we have to make. It’s unfortunate.”
Martin said the commander for the joint Army and Air Force base had already planned to close the outdoor pool at Fort Eustis in Newport News prior to sequestration, but made the decision to close the outdoor pool at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton following the automatic spending cuts ordered by Congress.
The changes have frustrated many people who don’t have other nearby options or can’t afford high-priced commercial water parks, although the base is working to get those who want them coupons and a list of nearby community pools. The decision to shutter Langley’s pool was met with a series of critical comments on the base’s Facebook page.
“I can understand the need for reduction of costs in all facets of life, I just think they need to be a little bit more careful in what they want to cut first,” said Paul Smith, an Air Force retiree who recently visited the water park at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story with his two 10-year-old granddaughters.
The Gator Water Park that Smith was visiting in Virginia Beach will be open one less day per week. The park, with its series of water slides and lounge chairs, is almost always packed with families. Despite their popularity, Navy officials say the pools and water parks don’t pay for themselves.
James Baker, fleet readiness director for Navy Installations Command in Washington, said reducing hours and closing some water parks and outdoor pools is expected to save about $2.3 million this year. The Gator Water Park is open one less day a week this year to save money and is included in that figure.
Most of the reductions are occurring in fleet concentration areas like those in Virginia, San Diego, Hawaii and Japan, he said. At Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, two indoor pools remain open but an outdoor pool and a water park have been closed for the season.
The lion’s share of the savings comes from not having to hire civilian lifeguards. In cases of pool closures, money is also saved on not having to pay for pool upkeep.
Baker said the primary driver behind providing the aquatics programs is physical fitness for service members and their families, but there are also other benefits. He noted that the pools help with retention and provide healthy after-work programs, particularly for younger sailors who may look for off-base entertainment. Frequently, off-base entertainment for young sailors involves alcohol, and the Navy has made curbing alcohol abuse in its ranks one of its priorities.
Some members of the military say that part of the appeal of the on-base pools and water parks is that they help provide a unique sense of community for a group of people who frequently move around and have the types of jobs that civilians can’t always identify with. That sense of community is one of the reasons many people choose to stay in the military, they say.
“You see another kid, you would even watch out for a child you don’t know because it’s another military child. It’s that common sense of belonging,” said Navy Lt. Brian Bak, who is stationed at U.S. Southern Command in Doral, Fla., and visited the Gator Water Park with his wife and children recently.
“I think the young single military folks don’t use this stuff as much. But families are really kind of the key. It means more to the families than the young single folks.”