Can El Niño turn the tide?

California dealers are delighting in recent rains, but some fear years of drought may have driven boaters to other pastimes.
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The concrete launch ramp at Bidwell Canyon on Lake Oroville shows that although boating conditions have improved dramatically, the water level in late January stood at only 39 percent of capacity.

The concrete launch ramp at Bidwell Canyon on Lake Oroville shows that although boating conditions have improved dramatically, the water level in late January stood at only 39 percent of capacity.

Californians are reveling in the effects of El Niño, which has brought rain to the parched, drought-stricken state, but no group is happier than boat dealers, who have faced hardship after hardship since the housing bubble burst in 2008.

Floor traffic is already up 200 to 300 percent at Galey’s Marine in Bakersfield, Calif., estimates Don Galey, who bought the dealership from his father more than a half-century ago.

“Dealers in central and northern California that I’m good friends with, they’re as excited as we are,” says Galey. “We’ve been really, really hit hard. I grew up in this industry and have owned this store for 61 years now, and I have never seen a drought like this.”

The effects have been devastating for California’s marine industry. Galey headed the Southern California Marine Dealers Association before stepping down almost two years ago.

He guesses that the industry has lost 60 percent of its boat dealers in California in the past four years, at least partly because of the drought. That was on top of dealers’ initial losses when the Great Recession hit California, where the housing bubble grew larger and burst much harder than in most other regions.

“Some of them, it’s really tragic because they were good dealers,” says Galey. “They were smart; they just lost out. The good news is some of them who probably never should’ve gotten into the industry are also gone. The ones that are left are businessmen, well educated in the marine industry, and they will flourish.”

Though it’s still early for California — which oddly enough has a boating season similar to regions with much more drastic fluctuations in seasonal weather patterns — the remaining dealers are excited to see water levels return to normal and, as important, snowpack bouncing back to above-average levels. That snowpack will provide the runoff that will help keep lakes and reservoirs full through the summer months.

Folsom Lake, the poster child for the California drought for four-plus years, saw water levels triple in January. Last year, images of cracked, parched ground, often with a dock or a grounded boat resting atop, or dramatic aerial shots dominated news reports. In November the lake was at the lowest level in its history.

By early February, officials were discussing releasing water downstream to mitigate flood risks, a tactic that hadn’t been discussed in years. Water levels were 104 percent of average for this time of year and 54 percent of capacity because of storms that had added 393,000 acre-feet, or 128 billion gallons, to the lake.

The storms prompted officials to lift a 5-mph speed limit for boats in late January, says Bob Bense, owner of Superior Boat Repair and Sales in Cordova, where sales have been picking up for the past year or two in spite of the drought.

“We were probably one of the first states to see the downturn back in 2007, and we were probably one of the last to start recovering after the quote-unquote Great Recession. So even though we’ve been in drought for three-plus years, sales have been increasing. It has been a struggle, but there’s a lot of pent-up demand in the market here. And by getting at least a normal amount of rain and snow this year with El Niño, it should be just an outstanding year for myself and other dealers.”

Bense does worry that California’s boating public has thinned dramatically during the last eight to 10 years. “I think a lot of families shifted gears, thinking, there isn’t a lot of water, it isn’t a great time to go boating, so we’ll go do this other activity,” he says. “People have changed what they’re doing with their family. And now, with the lakes filling up and snowpack in the Sierras that really feeds our lakes come springtime, I think we’re going to see more people getting back into boating.”

Gene Moynier, manager of Brothers Boats in Folsom, hopes that’s the case. “The cultural changes that have been happening in California and Nevada, it’s a real thing,” Moynier says. “There are very few dealers left and the market is extremely soft.”

Moynier hopes that higher water levels will encourage boaters to get back in, although he contends that water has been available through the drought. “Yes, the lakes are low, but the Sacramento River, which goes all the way to Sacramento, is available and ready to use. But a great number of people don’t see that as a recreational place to be,” he says.

“A lot of people won’t boat because they can’t go to the lake. I’m right by Folsom Lake, so I think I get affected dramatically. That’s their lake. If that’s not available, they don’t reach out and go into other places.”

Thus far, the rain hasn’t spiked boating activity despite the 5-mph restriction being lifted, Moynier says, adding that on the day he spoke with Trade Only, it was a near 58-degree day with sunshine.

He is perplexed by the California boating seasons — “In the Northeast, people are all busy wintering boats in the fall, but nobody does that here. When it gets toward the end of the year, they just stop using them and park them. Then you walk outside, it’s 65, 70 degrees.” But he also worries that the psychological effects of the drought could linger.

“When I referred to this cultural shift and the weakening of sterndrives, I think many are looking at it and going, ‘OK, we’ve got water this year and then, what if it goes away next year,’ and they don’t want to take the chance,” he says. “We have a lot of folks here still in a position where they purchased these pieces of equipment and have not been using them.

“It may be a little early yet,” Moynier concedes. “Our season usually starts around March with our big boat show, and May to July are our peak months in a normal year. The drought is going to be real interesting. Not to say the water isn’t a big issue; it truly is. If you’re somebody thinking about buying, I imagine you’d think, ‘Wow, the lake just came up, and the snowpack is good.’ ”

But Moynier doesn’t anticipate a switch to just flip. “People are going to be wondering if water will be an issue again next year. And I think there’s a factor that’s not drought-related. I think people are doing other things, like soccer. But for the boating side of things, having water in the lake is a really big deal. The folks that have boats are going to be whooping it up.”

The increase in traffic at Galey’s Marine, though not necessarily translating to buyers yet, was attracting people excited about the idea that they could use launch ramps and enjoy a full season. “They’re very excited,” Galey says. “We’ve really increased our inventory.”

Superior Boat Repair and Sales was already seeing at least one buyer return to the market. A customer who sold his boat two years ago but retained a slip at Folsom Lake recently showed up at the dealership, Bense says.

Now that he can access the lake that’s convenient to him, he’s come back to the market to buy another boat, Bense says, adding, “I think that’s going to happen more and more.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.

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