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California's Ongoing Drought Hits Water Recreation Businesses


We've been reporting on California's record drought and the impact it's having on the state's economy. The lack of water cost the state's agriculture industry more $2 billion last year. The latest estimates show it'll cost farmers another $1.5 billion in the year to come. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, recreation and towns that depend on water are also feeling the squeeze.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The Kern River cuts through 165 miles of Southern California's prettiest scenery, over Alpine granite, through thick forests, past redwoods, carving rock and gorge before hitting the high desert near the town of Kernville, where folks who know the Kern well look at it and say...

TOM MOORE: We call that a creek (laughter) yep.

ROTT: Tom Moore is the owner of Sierra South, a white water rafting and outdoor supply company here in Kernville. We're standing downstream from a few rounded boulders on the river's banks - or what in a normal year would be the riverbed.

MOORE: Yeah, we would be underwater. Those rocks would be underwater.

ROTT: Usually the Kern River is roaring this time of year as the snow melts and rushes down. But with the Sierra Nevada snowpack at just 6 percent of normal, a record low, the river is doing more of a slow glide, which is bad news for white water rafting companies like Moore's.

MOORE: We're snow farmers, you know? We're farming snow and we don't have a very good crop this year.

ROTT: There is still some water and some rafting. Moore says he's lucky in that his company can still offer river tubing, kayaking; different activities for people who still want to enjoy the area. Other companies aren't that fortunate.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, and thank you for calling Kern River Outfitters. Due to the drought, we have decided to not operate for the 2015 season.

JOHN DAVIS: As the river flows, so does our economy up here.

ROTT: John Davis is the owner of the Riverview Lodge, a log cabin-like hotel overlooking the river in Kernville.

DAVIS: In the last four years with the drought, my overall business, or revenue anyway, is down about 30 percent.

ROTT: Hotels, restaurants, gas stations, everyone in this small mountain town is having to cut back and adapt, Davis says. And it's no different in other mountain towns across the state. Caroline Beteta is the president of Visit California, the state's main tourism organization.

CAROLINE BETETA: Well, the vast majority of our tourism infrastructure has remained unaffected. The places that are affected are gravely affected, such as some of, you know, of course our ski resort communities this past winter.

ROTT: Attendance on the state's ski slopes was down by about 30 percent on average.


ROTT: Back in Kernville at Cheryl's cafe, Cheryl Borthick, the president of the town's chamber of commerce and owner of the cafe, says that the town of Kernville will survive. They'll reinvent and keep pushing to attract tourists.

BORTHICK: The fishing is still good, even though there's less water. The scenery is beautiful. There's a museum.

ROTT: But, she adds, a little more water sure wouldn't hurt. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Kernville, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.