Record heat, drought turn boating lakes into dust bowls in hardest-hit areas of the nation’s 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 nation’s 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 it’s hurt us because you just don’t go out on a boat when it’s 110 degrees,” says Mark Friedrich of West Marine in Phoenix. “Yesterday it was 116 degrees; you can’t do anything outside, and it’s very, very dry. That part hasn’t really affected us because it’s the same every year; it’s 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 haven’t 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. “We’re seeing a lot of docks breaking because, the way they angle down, it’s all suspended in air, and they’re breaking in half.”
Boats have been damaged because it’s difficult to get them on trailers when the ramps are flat, rather than angled, he says. “Technically, if you follow service contracts, we’re 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 don’t know what they’re going to run into with shallow-water issues, getting boats on trailers, and the problem’s becoming more challenging for us. We’re 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 state’s 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 there’s 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 lake’s 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 it’s this low, aesthetically, it’s just not very pretty. A lot of the private docks and areas where people normally have boats, there’s just no water. They’re 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. “There’s a lot of duck and deer hunting via boat that keeps us alive in the wintertime, so normally we’re 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. “There’s a huge sandbar right in the middle of the Mississippi River,” he says. “The river’s 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 that’s 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 didn’t have more than 2 inches of snow for the year, and that’s 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. “We’re 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 Antonio’s major reservoirs have had the benefit of some rains that we didn’t get in central Texas,” he says. “We’re just hoping for a hurricane.”
Mark Huey, general manager at Ted’s Aqua Marine in Indianapolis, agrees. “We’re 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.”
It’s hard to swallow after a spring with record rainfall, he says. “Everybody’s 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, that’s not the case at landlocked dealerships. Many customers at Ted’s Aqua Marine and Blue Springs Marine near Kansas City have already winterized their boats, saying it’s just too hot. Huey says his Harley-Davidson stays in the garage because it’s even too hot to bike.
“It was just too hot to enjoy boating,” he says. “To just go out in some of the fishbowls we’ve got for lakes, go around in a circle, drop a hook, eat fried chicken and drink beer — that’s how we fish here — it’s just too hot to do that.”
Some of the heat records being broken are more than 100 years old. “I’ve 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 we’ve had, we sell a lot of boats until July, but if [the heat] continues it turns off because the water is 90 degrees and there’s no air movement,” he says. “When you’ve got 90-degree water and it’s 105 degrees out, it’s 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 aren’t using their boats as much because their service departments aren’t 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 I’m almost three weeks out to get your boat fixed, and right now I can get you in in three days,” he says. “So, yes, it’s 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 don’t have to treat until they’re 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 it’s the lawnmower, the weed eater, the motorcycle,” he says. “We’ve seen some terrible things, and to think we’re looking down the pike at E15.”
Looking ahead, one of the biggest concerns for Siems is how to place orders for next year. “We don’t know how we’re going to go into 2013,” he says. “We’re apprehensive about how to stock. If we get rain, we’ll 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.