Drought can depress recreation, tourism industries
There are many industries that depend on at least normal amounts of water coming out of the sky each year. Some of them, like agriculture, are obvious. But some that are greatly affected when a drought hits are almost hidden, except to those that are affected by it.
One of those is tourism and recreation.
On the surface it would seem that tourism would actually benefit from good weather with no snow in the winter. The mountains, where the main supply of water of water for Castle Country is stored until it melts in the spring and runs into reservoirs where it can be used for municipal, industrial and agricultural purposes, are more accessible. But the lack of precipitation decimates certain kinds of recreation, some that people and businesses rely on for at least seasonal income.
Few businesses rely strictly on the snow that falls for their revenue, but many convert from providing one kind of service in one season to another in other seasons. For instance, some motorcycle/ATV dealers that are busy with those machines for five months out of the year sell snowmobile and snowmobile equipment in the winter. Many companies that specialize in gardening or construction, do snow removal during the snowy months. Sporting good outlets convert from selling summer gear for hiking and fishing to winter gear. The list is long.
The most obvious impact in Utah, recreationally, when there is little snow, is in the ski industry. While this does not affect eastern Utah, that has no ski resorts, it does affect the entire state indirectly through tax revenues from visitation. There is also some pass through business that comes to the region by travel of those going to ski resorts along the Wasatch Front from the east, and those that might be going to some of the Colorado ski resorts from the west coast. Droughts affect everyone in the line of travel.
There is also another side beyond just having the white stuff on the ground. When the snow melts it fills reservoirs and streams. Fishing and boating are large businesses in Utah. When stream flows are poor fishing can be impacted and low reservoir or lake levels create problems for marinas and the boaters who use them.
The natural habitat that is enjoyed by thousands also gets hurt. Low moisture levels in the ground can decimate plants and trees, which in turn hurts the population of natural animals in the area. While plants that grow in the summer can be affected, winter forage for such animals as deer and antelope can be destroyed causing many to die of starvation.
This condition of low soil moisture also weakens trees so they are more susceptible to disease. That brings on the likelihood of wildfire. A drought that weakens and kills plants and trees creates the perfect conditions for wildfire. Last summer when the Seeley Canyon fire burned thousands of acres around the Huntington Canyon area, it also destroyed good fishing streams and wiped out many favorite camping grounds in the area. These camping grounds, while popular with locals, also were well liked by many from outside the area that often spent money in Castle Country in their travels to get there.
The fact is that outdoor recreation activities are closely linked with water in one way or another. Weather, then it could be said, is as much a natural resource as any other tourism attraction.
While studies on the effect of drought on tourism and recreation are few, one done in southwestern Colorado last year shows that there is a direct relationship of drought on all seasons and types of recreation.
The study was conducted by a researchers from the University of Colorado and by the Integrated Science Program/Research Applications Laboratory. The study brought together professionals from many tourism and recreational sectors and created focus groups, did research and compiled information about how the droughts affected recreation in the area, which is similar to eastern and southeastern Utah. Impacts of lack of precipitation impacted all water sports including boating, rafting, and canoeing. The affect came not only from the reality that some venues were less able to provide the activities for those and other kinds of recreation, but from publicity in the media concerning drought. People who plan on a certain activity hear a report that the water is low then they start to rethink their plans. Wildfires also drive people away, because they are large media events. Vacation plans are often cancelled (or never booked at all) and visitation drops.
The same can be said of winter sports. Reports of lack of snow in an area can create lower visitation as well. People who want to snowmobile, snowshoe or cross country ski from outside an area hear reports that the industry that gets the most publicity when there is lack of snow, ski resorts, is hurting for white stuff, often stay home or go somewhere else.
The study was just a survey and did not go into statistics about how to measure exactly the drop in visitation because of drought effects, but did create an awareness that the problem exists over the entire sphere of recreation.
A drought is a slow moving disaster. People that visit an area usually are not concerned with the long term effects of the drought, but what is going on while they are there. In a year when there is still a full reservoir, most are not concerned with what will be in that reservoir the next year at the same time, unless they are planning a return trip.
However, for locals who rely on seasonal revenues, the overall weather is very important because they have to worry about what their business will be like next year and the one after that.
Unlike agriculture where crop production can be measured from year to year, with years with less water almost always producing less, visitation cannot be measured in the same way. While anecdotally lower visitation to an area can be surmised in a drought (barring some other kind of large disaster that gets big media play) it is hard to tell from year to year what might be affecting tourism. Only certain recreational industries keep really close statistics because they have an easy way to measure numbers. The ski resorts always know about how many people are coming and going because they charge for every body through their gates. When the snow is poor or there is a lack of it (or a perceived lack) they see the drop. But something like boating or snowmobiling in an area can only be estimated. When visitation associated with these sports is down, business around that area may feel the affect, but it is not always easy to pin it to any single reason.
(Sources: Climate and tourism on the Colorado Plateau, Drought Assessment for Recreation and Tourism for Southwestern Colorado).