How the drought is affecting Northern California business

Drought can gradually parch the coffers of companies, while for others it’s an economic boon. For some, it’s driving innovation.

One hair salon is using biodegradable towels, water well drillers are turning away potential clients, drought-resistant plants are all the rage, and watersports proprietors are figuring out how to survive with less water to play in.

In spite of this resiliency, things could get worse before they get better because the rainy season is still months away.

According to the government’s U.S. Drought Monitor, extreme conditions are more widespread throughout the West than they have been at any time in the last 20 years. About three-quarters of California is listed in “extreme” drought conditions. A year ago only 3% of the state was in the “extreme” category.

And summer has just officially begun.

Less water to play in

The Russian River in Sonoma County has long been a popular place for locals and tourists to play in. During droughts, recreation activities can be impacted because of an ever-decreasing flow of water.

“As long as there is water and not any dry land areas, we will continue to put people on the river,” said Rochelle Collier, manager of River’s Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips in Healdsburg. “The only negative impact that we have is with the low water levels because people are getting out of their boat a half-dozen times over a five-mile stretch. Normally this would (happen) at the end of August.”

With weekends being sold out at River’s Edge, the lack of water is clearly not a deterrent for the kayakers, canoeists and standup paddleboarders.

This season, new owners Kim and David Lockhart have implemented other attractions to keep people coming to their business no matter the water levels. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays there is live music, and chairs are available for rent to enjoy the beach atmosphere.

Such positive alternatives, though, are not possible at all businesses.

Off the Hook Fly Fishing, based in Napa, can no longer offer daylong excursions because the water is too warm in the latter part of the day. The company fishes a number of waterways throughout Northern California. Locally, those include the Napa River, Putah Creek and Russian River.

“Trout especially are very susceptible to warm water. They need cold water,” explained Mike Copithorne, who owns the company. “At about 60 degrees they start dying. With catch and release, the mortality rate increases if you handle them too often, especially in the heat of the day.”

He said offering only half-day outings because of the drought has caused a 10% reduction in bookings. However, the revenue loss is about one-quarter to one-third this season.

“Our guides are definitely turning down business because of the warmer temperatures,” Copithorne said. Not everyone wants to fish a half day, he said.

At Lake Sonoma Marina in Geyserville, the water level is what it might normally look like in late October, according to harbor master Larry Ceniceros.

“This will probably set a record for the water depth for the end of the season,” he said. “The lake is still really big. In the beginning, the marina was below where we are at now and people were doing recreation then and boating. We still have about 30 feet until we get back down to that level.”

The no-wake zone has been expanded as a safety precaution so boaters don’t hit trees that are protruding. While this means more boaters are in the main part of Lake Sonoma, Ceniceros said congestion has not been an issue.

That could be in part because the marina has seen a decrease in users this season.

“It’s a little bit of a hike to get to the water, which is hard for campers. The lake is probably down 45 to 50 feet,” Ceniceros said. “Boat-in campsites are accessible; you have to hike and really want to go, so that deters a lot of people.”

Still, Ceniceros remains optimistic, relaying that “the history of the lake has a good problem of getting too much water too quickly. In the beginning, they thought it would take three years to fill and one massive storm filled it in seven days.” He’s hoping one massive storm next winter brings the lake up to its rim.

While recreation and tourism are economic drivers for Sonoma and Napa counties, neither tourism bureau had information about how the drought affects those industries.

“We don't have any data or economic figures to share around the impact of drought past or present on tourism,” said Janette Maack, senior manager, public relations and content marketing at Visit Napa Valley.

Claudia Vecchio, CEO and president of Sonoma County Tourism, said much of the same thing. However, that agency has a blog post about what to expect when visiting during the drought. It mentions the low water levels at recreation areas, the need to turn off the tap while washing dishes and brushing teeth, and encourages shorter showers and reusing towels.

Drought can be good for some businesses

Laundry facilities, plumbers and well diggers are some of the industries that can financially benefit from droughts.

“Our largest washing machine washes 80 pounds of laundry at one time. It uses 67 gallons of water to do this. To wash 80 pounds of laundry at home, it would require eight loads in the standard washing machine you would find in a typical suburban garage and this would use approximately 350 gallons of water,” explained Gaeton Tamo.

He and his sons, Mario and Dante, operate 14 coin laundries in Guerneville, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, Sonoma, Napa, Oakland and Brentwood. Each facility has about 20 washing machines.

When people start looking at how to curtail water use at home, going to a laundromat can be a saver in water and time.

Herb McKay has been in the laundry business for 48 years, with storefronts in Vacaville, Winters, Woodland and Richmond.

“We have very energy-efficient machines. They can get more done with less water than with a home washing machine,” McKay said.

McKay didn’t own any of his current laundromats during the last drought, so he doesn’t have a price comparison for water/sewer bills in normal times vs. drought. His busiest location in Richmond comes with a water bill ranging from $4,000 to $4,500 a month, and a sewer bill of $5,000. Each location is with a different water/sewer company.

Those amounts are in “normal” times, with McKay expecting them to go higher if people start doing their laundry outside their home because of the drought.

“We advertise that it helps lower their bill and consumption. You are using less water at a laundromat than you would at your home,” McKay said.

Another way for homeowners to be proactive is to repair leaky faucets and water lines.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports, “The average household's leaks can account for nearly 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year, and 10% of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day. Household leaks can waste nearly 1 trillion gallons of water annually nationwide. Fixing easily corrected household water leaks can save homeowners about 10% on their water bills.”

Christian Macauley, who with brother Sean, owns American Leak Detection in San Rafael, said calls are up 20% because of the drought.

“People are more frantic than ever,” Macauley said. He understands the need for conservation. He uses a bucket in his shower to capture the cold water before it gets hot and then uses that container for irrigation.

Macauley’s company works on main lines, irrigation and most kinds of pipes underground. A number of recent calls are from pool owners noticing the water level decreasing and thus suspecting a leak, he said.

“With the pools we are finding with these winds and with the dry environment, (they) are losing a quarter inch a day because of evaporation,” Macauley said. “My recommendation is people get pool covers, if possible.”

The Hamilton Community Pool in Novato knows all about evaporation, which is why the lone significant drought protocol there is to cover the pool each night.

The drought is causing the phone to ring off the hook at Irwin Well Drilling in Fulton in Sonoma County and at McLean & Williams, water well specialists in Napa. The problem is neither company can keep up with demand; there is only so much drilling equipment and manpower to do the jobs.

Gonzalo Salinas, president and co-owner of McLean & Williams, said call volume is up 60% because of the drought. These are locals, regional prospects and people out of state.

He expects to drill 40 wells this year, which is about normal —normal being 35 to 40 wells a year. It takes specialized equipment to drill, and Salinas only has so much of that specialized equipment. So, a lot of work gets turned away.

“In most cases, 90% of the time, it’s new wells,” Salinas said. “A small percentage can be redrilled deeper.” He said well drilling costs between $15,000 and $20,000 for an average domestic system.

Geological formations in Napa County vary, meaning the wells do as well. Some are 150-feet deep, others more than 1,000 feet down.

Nolan Irwin, who is a third-generation owner of Irwin Well Drilling, believes the drought has affected the perception of well owners more than anything. It’s as though they want to know they have access to a large amount of water even if they don’t need it or use it. It’s a mentality similar to when people began hoarding toilet paper and cleaning wipes at the height of the pandemic.

Calls have tripled this year, Irwin said. People in Santa Rosa are calling wanting wells dug even though they have city water. Irwin attributes this to a heightened awareness of water issues, but not for a real need for that underground water.

“If there were two or three more years of drought, then we would really find out what is dire need and what is perceived need,” Irwin said.

His company, which mostly works in Sonoma County, drilled 62 wells in 2020 and expects business to be the same this year even though demand is greater. Irwin said it’s a dangerous business and he won’t chase a dollar to risk injury to his employees.

The state Department of Water Resources reports, “As many as 2 million water wells tap California’s groundwater, with approximately 7,000 to 15,000 new wells constructed each year. They range from hand-dug, shallow wells to carefully designed large-production wells drilled to great depths. Groundwater supplies approximately 40% of California's total water supply in average water years, and in some regions of the state, up to 60% in dry years.”

Landscaping can be a dilemma

The drought is apt to impact everyone when it comes to landscaping. Many nurseries have been proactive with ordering more drought-resistant plants, while designers are also turning an eye toward conservation.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in drought-tolerant plants, and we are putting out a lot more education about how mulch can help,” Aileen Carroll at Van Winden’s Garden Center in Napa said. “It can save up to 40% of water in a garden. It can be bark, wood chips, straw, pine needles. Leaf mulch is really nice stuff. It should be at least 3 inches deep; 6 inches is great.”

Realizing the drought was inevitable, she stocked up on succulents for the summer. While those are the plants most people think of for being hardy in times like these, Carroll stressed there are plenty of other choices.

At Armstrong Garden Center in Novato, workers are arriving at 6 a.m. to start watering at the nursery to ensure the plants remain healthy. This is something manager Linda Leathers says homeowners need to pay attention to as well—to not water in the heat of the day.

Prickett’s Nursery in Healdsburg is so accustomed to droughts that it now promotes drought-tolerant plants in wet and dry years.

Co-owner David Kinney said a number of customers have been seeking advice this year because of the drought. Displays are at the nursery to show people what drought-tolerant vegetation looks like, plus there is a wealth of information on the company’s website.

For those wanting help with what to do in their yard, there are a plethora of designers in the North Bay.

“We do get a lot of calls from people who are either removing or reducing their lawns,” said Becky Kover, lead designer with Hall Landscape Design in Napa. Solutions include hardscape items, and drought and fire-resistant plants.

Susie Dowd Markarian Landscape Design in Santa Rosa is struggling to keep up with the demand from people inquiring about doing something more water conscientious with their yards.

“I have nine active clients and four contracts just came in, and calls come every day,” owner Susie Markarian said.

A popular device she uses for homeowners is called a submeter or flowmeter or flume. It determines how much water is going into the landscape. It helps people chart their water use.

Impacts on a variety of businesses

Bennett Valley Golf Course in Santa Rosa is anticipating water restrictions will be in its future.

Rob Neal, who works in the pro shop, said in the last drought there were “plenty of dry areas.”

“We put a little bit of water on tees and greens and not on fairways. I suspect come September or October it will be the same,” Neal said.

With the 40% reduction mandated by Marin Municipal Water District, the Mill Valley Golf Course is making a concerted effort to make sure the greens, tees, approaches and collars get as much water as possible, while the rough and fairways are being sacrificed.

“It almost adds another level to the game because (the ball) bounces and rolls farther than it used to. So, perhaps it makes it a little more challenging,” said Peter Torre, parks supervisor for the city of Mill Valley.

He is confident this nine-hole municipal course will recover. “It will take a lot of work and some effort and some TLC to bring it back.”

Mill Valley is also rejiggering water allotments on ballfields and ornamental landscaping.

At Body Kinetics Health Club, which has locations in Novato, San Rafael and Mill Valley, customers are being held to a five-minute limit on showering.

Rock Paper Scissors hair salon in Santa Rosa is making sure the spigot is not on while shampooing or applying other hair products. Owner Katie Enfield also relayed that on occasion, and primarily with men, a stylist will ask to spray a person’s hair to get it wet instead of shampooing.

While Magnolia Avenue Salon in Larkspur had been using a towel service, owner Karen Davis recognized the amount of water needed to clean them was astronomical. She goes through 2,000 towels a week.

That’s why, as of June 24, the five shampoo stations are now stocked with biodegradable towels. They then go into a compost bin provided by the garbage company.

“They are really soft, black and hold seven times their weight in water,” Davis explained. “They turn to dirt in 90 days.”

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