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Drought Threatens 2014 California Fair Season

5/30/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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Fairs have been a California tradition since the 19th century. The Golden State is vast and populous and its fertile farmlands led to the creation of a multi-generational, agricultural industry, a solid foundation on which some of the largest - and most lucrative - fairs in North America were built. But this year, California fairs face one of the most dire threats in their long history - a drought of near unprecedented severity.

In May, Governor Jerry Brown issued his second Drought Emergency Declaration of the year, and 2014 is on record to be one of the driest summers in the Golden State since 1850. The declaration included an across-the-board reduction in water usage of 20 percent by all government agencies. Although regions of other western states are suffering from drought conditions, in California the conditions are not just state-wide, but an ongoing situation that has steadily worsened in the last three years.

Two-Fold Impact
The impact the drought is having on the fair industry is two-fold:

  • The economic toll the drought is inflicting on California's agricultural industry.
  • The operational changes California Fairs and Fairgrounds must implement to comply with new water usage limitations.

"We all have seen drought in California before, but never like this," said Stephen J. Chambers, Executive Director, Western Fair Association.

Chambers expects the main concern among fairs is how the drought will impair revenue. "The worst of the drought hasn't been played out yet," he said. "If the crops cannot be planted, you can expect farms not to be hiring as much, then there's less workers at the canneries, the processing plants, the trucking companies. The drought has been ongoing and we've been coping but this year is very severe. There are literarily thousands of acres that are not being planted this year."

Perhaps the one silver lining in this rainless cloud is that in the years leading up to this summer, the California fair business has been stable and strong. "There are exceptions that some fairs have not done well, but overall, fairs have been showing increased attendance and revenue in the last three years," said Chambers.

When the economy went into recession at the height of the financial crisis at the end of the 00s, California fairs suffered along with the other sectors of the economy. "But our recovery has been strong and the fairs were very healthy, even though the last couple of years there's been a drought," said Chambers.

But the robustness of the past will likely prove a flimsy buffer against the extremely dry reality of 2014. "Do I think business will not be as good this year for a lot of fairs?" said Chambers, "probably, but I do not want to guess how bad it will be. The signs are not good."

Agricultural Devastation
The Merced County Fair is located in the heart of Central Valley, a 450-square-mile of usually fertile farmland, the heart of California's $42.6 billion Agricultural industry. A recent study by University of California reported that 14,500 full time and seasonal jobs will be lost due to drought, with the state's Central Valley agricultural industry losing $1.7 billion in revenue.

With his fair set to begin on June 11, Tom Musser, CEO of the Merced County Fair, anticipates that the negative economic impact of the drought on the agricultural industry will have ramifications for the fair. "When the agriculture business is down, it affects everybody," said Musser. "Unemployment is high here, people are watching how much they spend. Agriculture uses seasonal employment, and that affects everyone if there are less workers because there is less money being circulated."

 In addition, the agricultural components of the fair - the underlying justification for many fairs - have been dramatically diminished. "We are still accepting entries, so I cannot tell you how down the amount of applications will be but they are down," Musser said. "Farmers are importing hay from Canada, so I doubt there will be any hay to judge this year. Crops of lettuce are down to 30 percent of what they were, and this will not increase the price at the supermarket, but the competition at the fair. I don't know what other crops will be affected, and with farmers cutting back because of the revenue losses, even affording to come to the fair is more of an issue this year."

Water Restrictions
Adding to their worries that a drought-weakened farm economy will cut fair attendance, fair management staffs are also confronting the challenge of reducing reduce water usage at their properties and events.

 "We have asked for 20 percent reduction, but it is up to the local jurisdiction to come up with their own plans to reduce the water," said Brian Ferguson, Deputy Director, Department of General Services. General Services is the department handling oversight of all drought emergency and water restriction measures, and the Department of Food and Agriculture (Fairs & Exposition Unit) falls under his purview.

The State of California is divided into 54 District Agricultural Associations under the California Department of Food and Agriculture (Fairs & Expositions Unit). In total, these District Agricultural Associations put on 78 fairs throughout the Golden State from early spring to the fall of each year.

No Fair Closures
"No fairs are being closed down and it is likely the customers will not notice any restrictions," said Ferguson. "Their fair experience will likely not be affected."
According to Ferguson, the fairgrounds (76 of the 78 fairs under the Department of Agriculture are also year-round fairgrounds) are not just implementing their plans, but submitting their plans to General Services so that department can begin a data collection process. The submitted plans include both immediately feasible actions that are being done at minimum cost to the fairground, as well as a wish-list, i.e., water reduction projects that require funding.

"A lot of the plans include fixing leaking pipes and using new toilet fixtures," said Ferguson. "There are plans that eliminate power washing and lot of emphasis on reducing irrigation, diverting less water to lawns. Some permanent fountains are being drained and not used at all this summer. I know of a mud car race that has been turned into a demolition derby event."

No Drought Crops
According to Ferguson, water-usage in the plans will be compared to their actual usage, derived mainly by utility bills, meter readings and other monitoring systems already in place.

"The fairs may be high water use events, but the data is for the entire year, so the impact of the restrictions will mainly be on fairground operations, not the individual fairs they host once a year," said Ferguson. "At this point, there are no penalties in place for fairgrounds who do not reach that 20 percent reduction. There are no drought cops."

Because funding for water-saving projects is or will soon be available, fairgrounds have been requested to submit proposals for new, drought-related projects. "We are asking for them to break down how they are reducing water usage within their existing resources," said Ferguson. "They are also being asked to list the things they would like replaced or upgraded that will further reduce water usage. We then will send those requests to state leadership and they will vote on allocation of specific funds."

In addition to grants and some federal money, Governor Brown signed a bill allowing $687 million for emergency drought relief, some of which will be spent on projects within the purview of the Department of Food and Agriculture, eventually aiding some fairgrounds, although Ferguson emphasized that fairs and fairgrounds are not the top priority.

"Most of the money is being spent on water conveyance, getting water from one area of the state to another," said Ferguson. "There are some municipalities where their supply of drinking water is down to 60 days. We are in need of billions of dollars of change in our infrastructure."

No Washing Allowed
Musser has submitted his water savings plan to the Department of Food and Agriculture, and except for some landscaping changes, water-reduction policies implemented at the Merced County Fair should not be very noticeable to fairgoers. But exhibitors and vendors will be highly aware of how they use almost every drop of H2O this summer.

"We are not allowing washing of animals, we're a no-wash fair," said Musser. "They have to go back to using brushes and towels. There is no power-washing of the facilities, we're using mops and buckets to clean the grandstands. For exhibitors and other vendors, they have to buy a special shut-off nozzle that regulates the water being used and turns off the water automatically."

For the cleaning of rides and other vehicles, vendors are no longer permitted to use the fairground's water supply for this purpose, or to even perform this task on the premises. Instead, all rides and vehicles must be cleaned off-grounds at what Musser described as a "local truck wash on Highway 99," which only uses reclaimed and recycled water. The washes will be at the vendor's, not the fair's, expense.

Fields Turned Brown
In addition, while there will be some grounds that are to be watered so lawns will be available at fair time, "after the fair, we will let those lawns die off," said Musser. "We've reduced our irrigation and the watering of lawns and garden. We are not watering every day and are watering for only 15 minutes."

However, these lawns are used for wedding receptions and other photo-ops during the non-fair days of the year, and the lack of watering may shrink those revenue streams. "The grounds will not look as green and I suspect that will reduce the number of rentals," said Musser.

The lawns are not the only drought-related, landscaping policy implanted at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

"We removed some flower beds and other landscaping," said Musser. "In our Adopt-a-Lot program, we have done a lot of education with the sponsors, and they are creating new lots with boulders, drought-resistant plants and artificial turf."

In the restroom facilities, while some low-flow water-reduction measures can be implemented, "we do not have the financial means to retro-fit and replace all the facilities with waterless urinals and those things," which Musser estimated would cost tens of thousands of dollars. "We are applying for funding," he added.

 All Fairs Affected
The variety of new water restriction measures that Musser instituted at Merced County is not unusual. Every fair in California will have similar policies this summer and the success of the new procedures or a fair's lack of compliance with the Drought Emergency Declaration guidelines will not go unnoticed.

"There are operational realities that fairs have to face," said Chambers. "Fairs and fairgrounds are community leaders, so they have to set examples. Fairs want to participate as community leaders."

The WFA has about 150 members (about half are from California), and the drought has been a paramount concern in 2014. WFA members are in constant communication about the issue and Chambers is facilitating the sharing of information.

  "Fairs are very collaborative, and we have been sharing best practices on a variety of drought-related matters with all our members," said Chambers. "Theme parks face the same issues, but they are better able to finance improvements."

Dry Midways
Mick Brajevich, CEO and President of Butler Amusements - a California-based midway provider - said that his company has not been contacted by any of the state and county fairs on his circuit about any new restrictions on their midways, but the drought conditions - most municipalities have instituted water usage restrictions - have already affected the lives of Californians. "Everyone here is aware about how much water they are using," said Brajevich, a California resident.

So far this season, Brajevich said none of the fairs "have given us any notice about any new restrictions. The big thing is not being able to use their facilities to wash our rides and vehicles."

However, Brajevich recalls a fair official in mid-May coming onto the midway, "asking us about a hose we had hooked up. There was no problem with what we were doing, but there is more vigilance about water monitoring. I expect it will be that way all summer."

Hot Summer
Brajevich admits that the one ride that may cause controversy in his drought-stricken California circuit is the White Water Flume Ride - logs carry passenger over a spectacular - and extensive - water slide. "We only use this ride at larger fairs," he said.

While no fair so far this year has banned the White Water Flume Ride, which requires tens of thousands of gallons of water to operate, the problem it poses is about practicality - a water-ride certainly makes a policy of reducing water usage by 20 percent more challenging - as well as appearances - will a fair want such a visibly high-profile ride using excessive amounts of water at an agricultural-based event while so many are suffering from the devastating effects of one of the worst droughts in California history?

 "If a fair requests it, I will just bring a water truck or use reclaimed water, which I would rather not do," he said. "I don't expect the ride to be a problem, but you never know. It's a very popular ride to have at a fair, it brings in a lot of fairgoers and revenue, for both Butler and the fair. Whether the Flume ride is used or not could become a very serious discussion this year."

But this water-ride will not be the only water-related topic under discussion as the summer progresses. "The temperatures now are in the 70s and very comfortable," said Brajevich. "When temperatures climb into the 100s, which they do every year, California just bakes, and everything gets dusty and that can pose other problems for the fair and some rides."

Brajevich added, "in California, there is just going to be no rain and it's been this way for the last few years. It's getting worse. All the water we have is all the water we have. If it is a mild summer temperature-wise, it won't be as much of a problem. But when the temperatures go up, it may be very difficult for some fairs."

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