Tourist businesses and destinations need to conserve as state deals with severe drought .

Share story

Disneyland is anything but underwhelming. Its deluxe fountains constantly spout, water rides regularly douse patrons, and plush gardens all lead children, and sometimes adults, to both squeal with delight and break down in tears.

So you may suspect that a Southern California theme park that relies on evoking a fantastical world of grandeur would view the water restrictions in the wake of the state’s drought as onerous. That would be wrong.

The drought has already changed the habits of a tourism industry that includes the state’s signature theme parks, world-renowned golf courses, extensively manicured hotel and spa grounds and the abundance of natural wonders that make up a $57 billion tourism industry and employ nearly 5 percent of the state’s workers.

But new limitations calling for people, governments and businesses to reduce water use by as much as 36 percent compared with 2013 mean different things to different attractions. The large-scale destinations say that they’ll continue to cut use, so the restrictions will in some ways mean business as usual. Others, especially those tied to the state’s natural wonders, are tightening spigots at the same time they are finding new ways to market peaks with little snow and streams that are slowly drying up.

Going with the flow

Disneyland, which is in Anaheim, is celebrating 60 years in operation this summer (anniversary celebrations began Memorial Day weekend) and is showing no signs of slowing down. It is among the most visited theme parks in the world and it appears mostly unfettered by the drought. Attractions at the park that rely upon water — Rivers of America, Adventureland, Splash Mountain, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World — are mostly made possible by recycled water systems, but they still need to be topped off because of evaporation.

“Since 1955, water conservation has been one of our key environmental goals,” said Suzi Brown, director of media relations and external communications for Disneyland Resort and Disney California Adventure, its nearby waterpark.

“Walt actually had conservation in mind when he built Disneyland.” She pointed out that two-thirds of Disneyland’s original storm drains flow into interconnected canals that feed Rivers of America, Storybook Land, Castle Moat and Jungle Cruise. The 60,000 lawn and garden sprinklers are managed by a weather-based irrigation system, and the park is outfitted, as well, with flow sensors and cutoff valves to detect leaks. And, she said, Disney California Adventure incorporates water conservation design, such as storm water treatment devices which allow for water infiltration into groundwater.

“In fact, if you look at our overall water usage since when the drought began,” said Brown, “you’ll see we’ve been able to reduce or maintain that while still increasing attendance, operating hours and also expanding the resort.”

Disneyland collaborates with the Orange County Water District, which recycles water into a purification system and then into the county’s groundwater aquifer. Essentially, then, the water Orange County residents use could be the same water they sailed across on the Mark Twain Riverboat when they last visited Disneyland.

Still, the Anaheim water authority must cut the city’s use by 20 percent, a tall order. During a recent visit to Disneyland, it was apparent that there are some quick fixes. Although the sensor-controlled faucets are low-flow, for example, water continues to run regardless of whether you have finished washing your hands.

Neither Disneyland nor Anaheim Public Utilities would say how much water the park does use and Disney will only say that it plans to comply with restrictions once they’re in place.

Saving water at Pebble Beach

At Pebble Beach golf resort in Northern California, the 454 guest rooms are also equipped with low-flow shower heads and guests can choose to have linens changed less often. The links are watered with reclaimed waste water, a $67 million project that the Pebble Beach Co. says has also reduced discharge into Carmel Bay. An irrigation system, too, is based on evapotranspiration rates, soil probing, visual inspection and the weather.

“A main driver to develop and finance this project in 1994 was that we realized we needed a reliable source of water to irrigate all of the golf courses here because, periodically, California goes through droughts,” said David Stivers, executive vice president of the Pebble Beach Co.

Stivers added that these previous moves to conserve water have given Pebble Beach a leg up in facing the coming restrictions.

“The State Water Board has imposed an 8 percent cut back on the Monterey Peninsula, much less than the average 25 percent statewide cut back,” he said. “They recognize that our community has one of the lowest water usages per capita in the state. We’ve had conservation plans in place for quite some time, and we’ll expand what we are doing to help meet these restrictions.”

Catalina Island hurting

The drought, then, is most acutely felt perhaps by the communities that cater to tourists, like Catalina Island, which is off the coast of Southern California and is part of Los Angeles County.

The island’s cracked Stage Road, which snakes up into the dusty palisades and away from the idyllic and festive harbor offers heart-stopping views of the mainland and also the Pacific Ocean, which is one reason many have come to the island in the last century.

But continuing onward and inland, where bison roam the island’s rolling prairie, a detour to Thompson Reservoir reveals what few visitors see: depressing, declining waters, with a rickety dock mired in weeds and beached paddle boats. While no water is actually pumped from here to serve the 4,000 island residents (most water comes from a desalinization plant and ground wells), it does function as an indicator, and stark image, of Catalina Island’s vanishing supply of groundwater.

Last August, eight months before California Gov. Jerry Brown announced water use cutbacks, Southern California Edison, which provides water, gas and electricity to Catalina Island, told residents to restrict their water use by 25 percent. The island economy is nearly entirely dependent upon tourism, making for a sobering dilemma: the source of Catalina’s livelihood is also threatening its survival.

Amid the deepening drought, four years on and seen by many estimates as California’s worst, island residents are facing a 50 percent reduction in water use by October, when statewide water restrictions are expected to take effect.

What this means, long term, for tourism on the island is hard to say, but Jim Luttjohann, president of the island’s Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, described local plans for the short term.

“Fewer laundry days at hotels or else shipping laundry to the mainland; elimination of certain spa services; disposable dinnerware; enhanced messaging in rooms that remind guests to conserve; hourglasses in showers; importing bottled water; hosing off streets with salt water; salt water in toilets,” he said.

“I come from New Mexico, where many home lots have cisterns to catch rainwater. The lots on Catalina are too small for that, but small above-ground rain barrels could work, if it rains.”

Scott Moyce, a tour guide and an island resident, on and off, since 1977, likened the current situation to life in the military. “Showering, three minutes, maximum,” he said.

Ski resorts’ short season

At another popular tourist destination, away from the coast and into the Sierra Nevada, ski operators around Lake Tahoe are seeking to boost their warm weather attractions on the heels of a weak winter season. According to the California Ski Industry Association, California’s resorts, 27 in all, are behind only those in Colorado as a top destination for skiers and snowboarders. Seven resorts in the Lake Tahoe area closed early this season because of limited snow. On the lake’s northern and eastern shores, which stretch into Nevada, the surrounding waterways, including the Truckee River, serve resorts around Incline Village and the Stateline casinos, and stem from a high desert climate in Nevada, where the landscape is less dependent on irrigation, said Christopher Baum, president and chief executive of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

“The Truckee River will be down this summer, which may affect rafting and kayaking,” Baum said, but he added that he foresees no water restriction issues along the Nevada portion of Lake Tahoe.

And he confidently pointed to the lake’s very depths as proof that all’s not lost.

“We’re not in the dire straits California is in,” he said. “Plus, Lake Tahoe is 1,600 feet deep. That’s enough water to cover the state of California in 15 feet of water. In our lifetime, we’re not going to run out of water.”

Andy Wirth, president and chief executive of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings on Lake Tahoe’s north shore, said that although the number of winter visitors the last four years has been between 20 and 25 percent fewer than before the drought, he is cautiously hopeful that other area attractions will draw them.

“In summertime, our mountain destination, guests and, in essence, our company are very low consumers of water and we don’t anticipate a notable decrease in the number of customers based on the drought conditions nor is there any likelihood of notable drought-related increases in costs,” he said. “We still offer tram rides, concerts, weddings, conferences, and the past three summers’ demand for these has been steadily increasing. However, while encouraging, this is all within the very real backdrop of the volatility of the weather.”

Low streams, dry hiking

Meanwhile, hikers in the area this summer could find dry streams and creeks. A teenage hiker had to be rescued from the Pacific Crest Trail near Lake Tahoe on May 3 after he ran out of water and gradually discovered there was none to be had along the route’s waterways. D’Artagnan Driscoll of Apache Junction, Arizona, had started his trek near the California-Mexico border at the end of April, but when he found no water source in the rugged area, he had to return home. On May 2, he attempted the trail again, starting in Northern California near the town of Sonora, only to find that the water sources there had evaporated as well.

“I was using two guidebooks and an app and they all listed about 10 places, with mile markers, where there was supposed to be water,” he said. “But there wasn’t any.”

At Yosemite National Park, managers have reduced watering lawns at the park’s four lodges to once a week and reclaimed water is sprinkled on the golf course. As a park spokesman, Scott Gediman, pointed out, however, the state’s water restrictions don’t apply to this federal land, but with the drought so relentless and with fluctuating seasonal temperatures, managers felt compelled to follow suit, instructing their 1,000 employees, the largest number of any national park, to cut down on watering lawns and washing cars.

“Tioga Pass opened earlier than usual this year, due to low snowpack,” he said. “All of the meadows are green now and Yosemite Falls is going strong, earlier than is normal, but as we get later into the season, the falls may dry up in mid- to late June or July and river levels will be lower. Rafting along the Merced River will likely close earlier in the season.”

But Gediman is still upbeat about the coming tourist season.

“Yosemite is beautiful regardless, even if there are no waterfalls,” he said. “There’s still great hiking and mild temperatures, and in the fall, the trees changing their colors. Water is a big part of the park, but certainly not the only part of it. I guess you’d say we’re taking the glass-half-full approach.”