A drought of epic scale

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes
There's no need for a speed marker as seen Jan. 17 at Black Butte Lake in Sacramento, Calif.

There’s no need for a speed marker as seen Jan. 17 at Black Butte Lake in Sacramento, Calif.

People living in California and Colorado River Basin states such as Arizona and New Mexico are no strangers to drought. Even today, with water levels near historic lows, Internet surfers can still find blogs penned by locals marveling at outsiders’ panicked reaction to what has always been an issue in these parts.

Even as the Sacramento area’s Folsom Lake receded so far that unknown settlements from Gold Rush days emerged, many are still not facing the dramatic implications of a drought that some are calling the worst in centuries, according to Emily Trites, who heads accounting and marketing for Gone Fishin’ Marine in Dixon, Calif. “The drought is definitely on people’s minds and definitely in the conversation, but I don’t think anyone believes it’s going to get quite that bad yet,” Trites says.

Some area dealers say boat sales already have been affected, but they also acknowledge that things could turn around before the busy season. To the surprise of some in regions suffering through Arctic cold and snow, California has seasonal boating, too, even though temperatures in many places hovered in the mid-60s in early February. That phenomenon is actually good news for dealerships that don’t count on strong sales in the winter months.

“Boating is actually pretty seasonal here. March is usually when everyone is looking and buying,” says Gene Moynier, co-owner of Brothers Boats in Sacramento.

Still, water levels are at historic lows, and some boat dealers say that adding one more negative element in a state that remains dogged by a recession-deflated housing market could be catastrophic.

“One of the things I think we’re experiencing is a kind of stacking,” Moynier says. “You have the economy issue, jobs, housing, fuel and now water — each time you add another piece of that puzzle. Put it all together, and it has a dampening effect on the marine industry. I think when you have a drought going on, folks tend to put purchases off and just wait and see. You only have a certain window there for your marketing, so if they wait and see through that because they can’t use their lakes, you miss them for that year.”

The water level on Folsom Lake, photographed on Jan. 16, was at just 36 percent capacity in early March.

The water level on Folsom Lake, photographed on Jan. 16, was at just 36 percent capacity in early March.

Don Galey, president of Galey’s Marine in Bakersfield, Calif., agrees that the drought is affecting business. “Our business has been off because the attitude is ‘What the hell do I want to buy a boat for? I can’t put it in the water,’ ” Galey says. “The lakes are down between 87 and 96 percent. Even launching ramps don’t go down that far. So yes, it is a crisis. The good news is we could play catch-up in a hurry.”

The magnitude

In January, the state asked residents to reduce water consumption by about 20 percent. Bans were placed on irrigation, and salmon and steelhead fishing was prohibited during spawning season so eggs wouldn’t be disturbed or crushed. Camping has been restricted in some areas so as not to further pressure water supplies. Lawn watering was banned early on, as well.

Bettina Boxall, water and environmental issues reporter for the Los Angeles Times, says California has become just “one monotonously sunny day after another.”

Gov. Jerry Brown in January declared a state of emergency, calling the drought the worst “since record keeping began about 100 years ago.”

Heavy rain during the weekend of Feb. 8-9 provided some much-needed relief, bringing Folsom Lake’s level up 6 feet, but meteorologists say it will take eight comparable storms to replenish depleted supplies. Late February and early March also offered some relief. Folsom’s level was at 36 percent — nearly double what it was in January, yet less than half of what it would normally be in late winter, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which the department reported was at 32 percent of typical levels in early March, is also a concern because there will be less runoff in the spring. However, that was also an improvement from January, when snowpack was at just 12 percent of average levels.

The politics

A controversy has developed over attempts at the federal level to intervene in water management issues. The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 5 approved the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, which would ease environmental measures put in place to protect several endangered species. The bill would allow more water to be pumped from the Sacramento Delta to farmers, but environmentalists and Democrats in the U.S. Senate strongly oppose it.

Amid all the fervor about whether protection should be extended to endangered species or to the farms that supply the nation with half of its fruits and vegetables, there has been little discussion of recreational water shortages. The recreational side of the debate has been “pretty marginalized,” Trites says.

Anne Castle, assistant secretary for water and science at the federal Department of the Interior, says in an op-ed that sacrificing stream flows was a myth of water shortages.

“Environmental and recreation flows aren’t just nice things to have; they’re essential drivers for the economy of the Southwest,” Castle wrote. “Recent analyses and surveys have demonstrated that a flowing river floats hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. Business interests up and down the river are increasingly and appropriately vocal about their stake in healthy flows. Maintaining beautiful waterways that support tourism, recreation and ecosystems in and adjacent to the river is a necessary component of any solution.”

Trites believes the emotionally charged dialogue has left residents more mired in water allocation discussion than the overreaching implications of the shortage. “I think right now everyone is pretty politically antagonistic about it. There’s still a real North vs. South element” of conflict between environmental concerns and population and farming concerns, she says.

Two hours to sea trial

If nothing else, the low water levels have been inconvenient for Bob Bense, who owns Superior Boat Repair and Sales in Cordova, Calif., with his wife, Kathy. “I guess it’s too early to tell how it’s going to really affect us,” he says. “Right now, it doesn’t seem to have had a big impact. … It’s more of a headache. If we have a buyer and we’ve got a demo, we can’t go to our local Folsom Lake. We have to go farther to other lakes, so it’s more of a hassle.”

Bense says a 20-minute ride to Folsom Lake has turned into an hour-and-20-minute ride — each way — and has been so since September, when Folsom Lake dropped too low for boats.

The drought has caused dramatic change at Lake Oroville, a reservoir in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The drought has caused dramatic change at Lake Oroville, a reservoir in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Moynier says that although rivers are still flowing enough for boating, many of his customers want to stick to lakes and they want the convenience of being able to boat in their backyard. “We have to drive everyone to the Sacramento River [to sea-trial], but not all boaters like to use the river. A large segment just likes to use lakes.”

With Folsom Lake his nearest lake, as well, Moynier says other nearby lakes also are becoming challenged by water levels.

“Shasta is down quite a bit, Orville is down, and Tahoe is getting edgy,” he says. “A change of a foot or two in Tahoe is pretty dramatic. Some areas of access might go away completely if some launch ramps are unusable.”

He worries that the drought ultimately will be bad for business.

“If people have expendable income and they’re excited about a boat, but the places they would go boating are restricted or not usable, it doesn’t motivate people to make that purchase,” Moynier says. “They’re going to wait and see what happens. Enthusiasts won’t be affected either way — they’ll find water. But those are not the first-time boaters who grow the industry.”

Hitting stuff

Trites says Gone Fishin’ has already rebuilt a powerhead for someone who ran aground and didn’t shut down the engine in time. “We almost certainly will see some kind of uptick in service,” she says. “We haven’t seen it come through yet, but I imagine it’s around the corner.”

Bense says it is too soon to tell whether service will pick up, and Moynier says he thinks there will be some cutback in boat use. His area has seen several economically challenged residents continue to make payments on boats they weren’t using.

“A lot of those boats simply got parked,” he says. “The payments were being made, but they were not being used. A lot of those really haven’t come out and hit the water yet. Some come in for basic oil changes, and there are no hours on it. Everybody’s trying to be positive, but the climate is what it is.

“If you look at the statistics for deliveries in California, they are still off dramatically,” Moynier adds. “That clearly indicates that this part of the market has not recovered. You can blame or point to a lot of things, but it’s a sum total of a lot of things.”

Trites says business is showing signs of optimism. “We had the International Sportsman Expo in Sacramento recently, and that was really well attended,” she says. “The drought hadn’t put the scare into them. We had good leads and sold several boats on the spot.”

For those who enjoy boating, pricing is still competitive in California, Moynier says, “and there are plenty of places to go and boat. It may not be where you want to go at the moment, but we have the Sacramento River, the San Francisco Bay — you’re just going to have to get in there and go to it. It’s not right in your backyard like it was.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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