ParchedPosted on Written by Reagan Haynes
Record heat, drought turn boating lakes into dust bowls in hardest-hit areas of the nations midsection
Unseasonably warm and dry summers have helped temper the effects of the economic downturn, but now they may be too much of a good thing. The nations widespread drought shows no signs of relenting, causing more than one boat dealer to wish in desperation for a hurricane.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data show that July was the hottest month ever recorded in the contiguous United States. Drought had overspread 63 percent of that area, causing massive fish kills and uncontrollable wildfires that consumed 2 million acres.
In Phoenix itself its hurt us because you just dont go out on a boat when its 110 degrees, says Mark Friedrich of West Marine in Phoenix. Yesterday it was 116 degrees; you cant do anything outside, and its very, very dry. That part hasnt really affected us because its the same every year; its just been really hot this year.
Many West Marine stores had been doing quite well because of the heat, Friedrich says, but by early August Soundings Trade Only was unable to find any boat dealers in the hot and dry areas that havent been adversely affected.
As at many dealerships, operating costs at Blue Springs Marine near Kansas City, Mo., are rising as workers haul boats out of lakes with barely any water, says owner Jeff Siems. Two-thirds of the lakes we deal with are private, and some of them had to come in with heavy equipment to crush up limestone boulders to the ramps so we can actually back in and get the boats, says Siems. Were seeing a lot of docks breaking because, the way they angle down, its all suspended in air, and theyre breaking in half.
Boats have been damaged because its difficult to get them on trailers when the ramps are flat, rather than angled, he says. Technically, if you follow service contracts, were not responsible, but for customer relations we take care of those, Siems says. My technicians are scared to go to some of the lakes because they dont know what theyre going to run into with shallow-water issues, getting boats on trailers, and the problems becoming more challenging for us. Were just having to fight through it, and we hope we get some water in our lakes soon.
During the first week of August, the Kansas City area got its first rain since May, Siems says a tenth of an inch.
Rod Malone, of Sail & Ski Center, which serves most of central Texas with three locations from the I-35 corridor south of Waco to Corpus Christi, has experience with drought. All 254 counties in Texas faced extreme drought conditions last year, and this is the central part of the states fourth year of drought, Malone says. Most of Texas has recovered from extreme conditions, but the central part of the state continues to struggle.
A chain of five lakes was built in the 1930s and 40s for hydroelectric generation, but the lakes have evolved into huge economic engines in real estate and recreation, Malone says. Two of the lakes are constant, and three are variable, he says. Huge communities have been built around the lakes, and the economic engine is turned upside down, he says, so theres a huge economic impact because of agricultural and municipal demands that have affected not only the boat business but the communities.
Lake Travis is 43 feet below pool level the lakes ideal level and it is 30 feet below average, Malone says. That sounds pretty dramatic, and it is, he says. A 15- to 20-foot elevation change is not unusual for our lake, but when its this low, aesthetically, its just not very pretty. A lot of the private docks and areas where people normally have boats, theres just no water. Theyre aground.
Sandbar in the Mississippi
Customers of Caruthers Marine in Vicksburg, Miss., are still boating, but many anglers have been restricted because of limited access, says general manager Joey Simmons. Several channels that connect with larger rivers have too little water for navigation, and some of the river-fed lakes are too low, as well, he says.
Because his clientele is about half boaters and half anglers, business has been iffy. My biggest concern is, with the [Mississippi] river as low as it is now as we head into hunting season that business will tail off, Simmons says. Theres a lot of duck and deer hunting via boat that keeps us alive in the wintertime, so normally were still selling new hunting boats and always doing repairs through the winter.
If temperatures stay above-normal, duck hunting could be affected because colder weather lends itself to longer duck migrations.
Water also has been an issue. One canal leading to the Mississippi that usually is at least 20 feet deep was only about 5 feet in late July, says Simmons. Theres a huge sandbar right in the middle of the Mississippi River, he says. The rivers so wide right there, right where the Mississippi turns, and around 400 or 500 yards from the bridge, literally out in the dead middle, is about a 4-foot sandbar.
Siems is seeing the water level drop in the Missouri River. They have to do more dredging for barge traffic, he says.
The Mississippi is also having issues in Missouri, so thats compounding the stress on the waterways, Siems says. Without all the heavy snows last winter, none of that stuff got filled up, he says. We didnt have more than 2 inches of snow for the year, and thats unheard of around here.
Even in Colorado, a lower-than-normal snowfall contributed to drought conditions that forced officials to close certain lakes to boats.
Hoping for a hurricane
Malone says he is having to chase the water at his 400-slip marina. It creates an operating expense burden and a customer inconvenience, he says. Were one of the more conveniently located marinas, so our elevation is up and down and not out. A lot have to move laterally when the level changes. Our cove gets narrow, and we have to start to reconfigure the marina. Instead of seven walkways, there are three walkways. The operating expense goes up dramatically.
Helping to offset that is that boaters private docks have gone aground, so they have come to Malone for slip space. Otherwise the heat, combined with the low water level, has affected business fairly significantly, he says.
The San Antonio Sail & Ski has been up about 15 percent, Malone says, and the other stores are down about that much. San Antonios major reservoirs have had the benefit of some rains that we didnt get in central Texas, he says. Were just hoping for a hurricane.
Mark Huey, general manager at Teds Aqua Marine in Indianapolis, agrees. Were still 6 inches behind, Huey says. It takes a lot of time to make that up. We need around 7 or 8 inches of rain. We need a hurricane.
Its hard to swallow after a spring with record rainfall, he says. Everybodys got brown, burnt-up lawns, he says, because of water use restrictions.
Like many, Huey says the record heat is deterring boaters more than the drought. Although hot weather traditionally is good for coastal boat sales, thats not the case at landlocked dealerships. Many customers at Teds Aqua Marine and Blue Springs Marine near Kansas City have already winterized their boats, saying its just too hot. Huey says his Harley-Davidson stays in the garage because its even too hot to bike.
It was just too hot to enjoy boating, he says. To just go out in some of the fishbowls weve got for lakes, go around in a circle, drop a hook, eat fried chicken and drink beer thats how we fish here its just too hot to do that.
Some of the heat records being broken are more than 100 years old. Ive lived here 57 years, and the last time I can remember it was remotely close to being this warm was back in the mid-80s, Huey says.
Siems sold plenty of boats at Blue Springs until July. After that, sales shut off. When we have a hot summer like weve had, we sell a lot of boats until July, but if [the heat] continues it turns off because the water is 90 degrees and theres no air movement, he says. When youve got 90-degree water and its 105 degrees out, its not refreshing. Our sales have come to a screeching halt in July. Service has slowed because people are not using boats.
The heat in central Texas was particularly dramatic last year: 90 days above 100 degrees, Malone says.
Service income drying up
Many dealers say they can tell that people arent using their boats as much because their service departments arent nearly as busy as they typically would be at this time of year. Parts and accessories sales those sales attributed to people actually using their boats dropped off 40 percent, Malone says. So I attribute that directly to the drought conditions.
Huey agrees. This time of year I should be telling you Im almost three weeks out to get your boat fixed, and right now I can get you in in three days, he says. So, yes, its had a definite impact.
An additional problem has been ethanol damage to boat engines, several dealers say. Despite their attempts to educate customers about damage, some owners still think they dont have to treat until theyre winterizing. The longer fuel with ethanol sits, the longer time it has to damage engines, Malone says.
One state representative brought his boat in to have work done after ethanol damage, Siems says. We enjoyed the service bill, he says.
For customers who doubt the need for stabilizer, I guess that $300 carburetor will get their attention, Huey says. As a matter of fact, everything I own has stabilizer in it, whether its the lawnmower, the weed eater, the motorcycle, he says. Weve seen some terrible things, and to think were looking down the pike at E15.
Looking ahead, one of the biggest concerns for Siems is how to place orders for next year. We dont know how were going to go into 2013, he says. Were apprehensive about how to stock. If we get rain, well need more inventory, but if the lakes get even lower, people are not going to buy boats.
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.