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.