Businesses struggle on drought-hit Californian lake

Businesses struggle on drought-hit Californian lake
Drew McClellan of A lucky Lawn paints green dye onto drought affected grass at a home in Santa Fe Springs, California October 1, 2014.

LOS ANGELES - It is a vast bowl of sand and rocks. It could be a lunar landscape, were it not surrounded by pine trees and dotted with shipwreck-like jetties and beached boats.

"The drought has been ... devastating on our business. Without the water we have no boating business at all," said Elaine Newton, who usually rents out boats to tourists on Huntington Lake, California.

The state is enduring it worst drought in 100 years.

Rancheria, the business she runs with her sister and their husbands, also has a small supermarket section, rents snowmobiles and offers to sweep up snow.

Hundreds of sailing and ski buffs usually visit every year, savouring the peace and wildlife of the lake which is billed as the best kept secret of the Sierra Nevada in advertising slogans.

But this year it has hardly snowed or rained, cutting Rancheria's revenue in half and leaving it dependent on campers who come to buy a few things while they stay nearby.

For locals, the big question is, what if the drought continues? Newton's husband and her sister's husband will have to find work elsewhere, and six seasonal workers will be laid off, she said.

We try to be creative

A few hundred yards away, another family-run business is in crisis.

Lakeshore Resort offers a marina, lodging, a bar and a supermarket.

"We have 27 cabins to rent, usually to people who come for the sailing. This summer, since there was no water, all our bookings were cancelled," said check-out girl Amanda.

Her boss Stephen Sherry, a typical mountain man with a white beard and blue eyes, has been forced to borrow money to stay open this season. He has cut staffing from the usual 60 in high season to just 17.

But he takes the crisis philosophically. "We try to be creative," he said.

"We've had truck races, kite and sandcastle contests. We want to go more aggressively with the weddings. It's a beautiful place to get married." Further along California's Central Valley, in the town of Porterville, farmer Tom Barcellos is also suffering from the lack of water.

His well has run dry, as have those of many homeowners and businesses in the small town, in the middle of a region traditionally considered America's bread basket.

Barcellos has been forced to leave 25 per cent of his fields fallow this year, which cuts into his profits at a time when he also has to buy extra feed so that his 800 cows have enough to eat.

"I just drilled a new well for US$150,000 (S$187,600)" to provide water for his cattle, he added.

The current drought is California's worst in a century. It is the worst that 59-year-old Barcellos, who grew up in Porterville, has ever seen, much worse than one in 1977, he said.

"I was born here. I've farmed here all my life," he said, adding: "This can't be the new normal, or we won't survive." Andrew Lockman, head of emergency services for Tulare County, which covers Porterville, said: "A lot of people are also losing their job because of the reduction of agriculture production." Thousands of fruit trees risk dying, and fields are not being irrigated because of the lack of water, he said, adding that some farmers are having to buy water by the truckload from other states at a huge cost.

This creates a vicious circle for the regional economy, he said, estimating that it will cause billions of dollars in losses for California, where agriculture generates US$7.8 billion (S$6.2 billion) a year in Tulare County alone.


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