Jeff Jardine: Recreation-reliant businesses need more rain, snow to buoy spirits

jjardine@modbee.comFebruary 8, 2014 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57

— WToss a stone into a brimming pond, and you’ll witness what is known as a ripple effect: wave upon wave dispersing in circular fashion from the spot where the rock plopped.

The symmetry is mesmerizing, even soothing.

But stand in the same spot, throw the same stone and hit dry land because the water level is too low, and the ripple is even greater. Some folks in the recreation industry will tell you it can be demoralizing. How so?

If the rain and snow promised for the region this weekend fail to exceed all expectations, and the storms don’t return repeatedly during the next couple of months, the drought will test even Colin Kaepernick’s arm when it comes to hurling a rock into the water this summer. Indeed, you need only to drop by one of the local businesses that relies on decent water levels for its existence to understand this ripple effect thing.

The Bait Barn is a store and gas station along Highway 132 in Waterford. Regulars stop in for coffee, snacks and a fill-up. But the store depends on the steady stream of fishermen and duck hunters, along with tourists who pass through on their way to Yosemite and other points east, to survive until the summer boating season arrives. It’s well situated to cater to those who fish Lake McClure, Lake McSwain, Don Pedro Reservoir, Modesto and Turlock reservoirs and also Lake Tulloch. But when the water levels drop so low that launching a boat becomes difficult or undoable – McClure is way, way down to the point where the old Exchequer dam is again out of the water – sales dry up, too, store manger Stacey Ridenour said.

“It really trickles down to small businesses like this,” she said. “When the lake levels are normal, people come in and buy bait and fishing stuff, and they buy other stuff as well,” such as food and drinks.

The store carries an extensive line of trout and bass lures, sinkers, flashers and whatnot. The bass lures are more expensive and thus more profitable than the trout lures, she said. When lake levels are down and boats can’t launch, people can still catch trout from the banks. But the bass fishermen like to go deep and thus go elsewhere – to somewhere where there’s more water.

“We’re not getting them right now,” she said.

Likewise, the low water levels ended the duck hunting season prematurely.

“Normally, we’d be packed at this time of day,” she said. “There would be all kinds of people in here, and the employees would be running all over the place.”

Instead, her clerk waited on a couple of people who stopped for coffee and snacks early Friday morning. Two fishermen picked up some bait and departed. They were the only ones during the time I visited the store. In fact, she’s cut back hours for the employees just as she’s cut back on orders for lures, bait and other fishing staples.

“(The drought has) put a big dent in our business,” she said.

Yet, compared with other area businesses that rely on tourism and/or recreation, the Bait Barn is holding its own. Establishments to the east, including in the Groveland area and up Highway 108, already were slammed by the closure of the forests during the Rim fire last fall. They hoped and prayed for an early winter that didn’t materialize. As of Saturday night, Dodge Ridge still hadn’t announced when it will open for the season. Hotels, restaurants and other establishments that rely on the skiers represent more of those waves in the drought’s ironic ripple effect.

Nor did the rain arrive early and often enough. It’s strange to think now that the folks monitoring the Tuolumne River feared heavy rains – in canyons reduced to ash by the fire – that could damage water quality in Don Pedro Reservoir. But then nobody expected 50-plus days without any measurable rain, which is what transpired and escorted the drought into its third straight year.

The California Fish and Game Commission last week voted to prohibit fishing on certain stretches of the low-flowing American River in Sacramento as well as the Russian River, as recommended by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which earlier banned recreational fishing on dozens of streams across the state. Neither the Stanislaus nor the Tuolumne are likely to encounter similar restrictions this summer, but Fish and Wildlife will continue to monitor all major rivers and streams that are spawning areas and make that call if necessary, spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said.

Boat owners at the marina in New Melones have been told to pull their craft from the water due to the falling lake levels. The operator will close the marina Oct. 1 based upon federal water level projections and ramp access for the 200 boats and 90 houseboats, with the larger houseboats being the more difficult to extract from the lake.

Losing those boats will impact businesses on both sides of the river, even though Glory Hole Sports fishing specialist Gary Powell said the store has enjoyed a solid winter so far. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates New Melones, jockeyed the floating docks and ramps as the water level fell, rose briefly and then fell again.

“They went out of their way,” he said.

With runoff expected from this weekend’s storm and any others, the lake will no doubt rise. But with so many needing water, it’s going to take a succession of strong storms to restore the lake levels and help the businesses that rely on recreation to survive and once again thrive this summer.

Until then, the ripple effect from a thrown stone will be greater if it hits dry land than if it lands in the drink.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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