AVALON—A severe water restriction, elevated by the driest period in 123 years, will soon hit Catalina, disturbing consumption for residents, tourists and recreational boaters in the island’s largest city.
Avalon is roughly 76 square miles in area and is home to a permanent population of about 3,500 residents. According to Wayne Griffin, president and chief executive officer of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce, more than 800,000 visitors crowd Catalina each year.
But with severe drought conditions hindering the Southern California coastline, the island getaway—a favorite for boaters—has suffered in sustaining its most precious natural resource.
Sources said even more stringent limitations may be in the future.
“This is not the first rodeo for the islanders,” said Ben Harvey, Avalon’s city manager. “In general, islanders are terrific at conservation—water, electricity, propone. They’re conservationist by nature.”
The island is currently operating in Stage 1 water restrictions, which prohibits the population from washing their cars, streets, piers, parking lots and driveways. Griffin added that during these restrictions, restaurants are barred from serving water to guests unless requested.
In July, Southern California Edison (SCE), which has controlled the island’s water, gas and electric utility since 1962, will implement a Stage 2 restriction. The harbor community, consisting of 2,200 SCE-paying customers, will be required to reduce water consumption by 25 percent. Those who fail to comply with the restrictions are subject to penalties on their monthly bills.
“I think that’s going to have an impact on residents more than visitors,” Griffin said. “Some of the things a visitor might notice are being asked to purchase a bottle of water, rather than having water provided to them free of charge, simply because restaurants have to find ways to reduce their consumption by 25 percent. Hotels may also choose to change linens every second or third day rather than every day to reduce laundry usage.”
If conditions fail to improve, the island may be poised to enter Stage 3 by November, which would consist of a 50 percent reduction in usage.
“That’s going to affect everyone,” Griffin said. “It would obviously have a bigger impact on both visitors and residents. We’re not there yet. Businesses are still planning on what to do to get through Stage 2 rationing. I’m encouraging them to not only do that, but to start to think about the kinds of things they may have to do for Stage 3.”
The water system on Catalina Island was originally established in the early 1900s, before SCE acquired the utility in the early 1960s and reconfigured many of the water sources on the island. Over the years, SCE has continued to add resources that have aided in maintaining the growth of the island, according to Ron Hite, SCE’s district manager.
“The island has gone through Stage 2 rationing in the past,” Hite said. “The last time was in 1991. The big difference now really is that we’re currently in the driest year in 120 years. That just doesn’t go for only Catalina but for all of Southern California.”
Harvey, who said the island has seen a 30 percent increase in visitors this year, added that many of the island’s long-time residents recall severe water restrictions in the early 90s and late 1970s. To help mitigate usage, SCE, the city and the Chamber of Commerce have joined together to create an educational campaign to inform residents and visitors on the scope and severity of these limitations.
Passengers of the Catalina Express will be informed en route to the island of the restrictions, and Griffin said Avalon’s Harbor Department will distribute material to recreational boaters prior to entering the area.
“The idea is that from the boat ride over to the time you put your head on the pillow at night, you’re constantly reminded that the drought is going on and there are water restrictions,” Harvey said.
Information will be provided via signage scattered throughout Avalon, including placards on restaurant tables and stickers on hotel mirrors. Harvey said doing small things like not asking for tap water or not taking a shower after a swim can be beneficial to the island’s goal of conservation.
“It’s really stuff that we should be doing all the time anyway,” he said. “It’s just more important right now.”
The effect on the predicted increase in tourism during the summer months and the development of current and future projects may be the most pressing issue when it comes to restrictions.
For recreational boaters, Harbor Manager Brian Bray said he was unaware of any planned restrictions for supplying water to visiting boats, but added that “We already do not allow fresh water wash downs.” Boat owners are still allowed to fill fresh water holds.
With more than a dozen projects in construction or planned in the area, including a museum, hotel and a spa scheduled to open in July, water availability for those developments could be in question.
“There is room in the tariffs that allows for some flexibility there,” Hite said. “The new spa has their water application. They received it through the proper channels and through the proper timing and everything. The concern is if we’re in advanced stages of rationing, then I won’t turn the water on for them.”
SCE’s plans are to conserve consumption until a predicted rainy season takes effect. Hite noted that aquifer levels on the island are dropping to critical status, and California Public Utilities Commission tariffs state that when the reservoir levels drop to 300 acre feet, Stage 2 rationing must be implemented. SCE controls a desalination plant on the island, which produces a majority of the islands’ consumed water, and groundwater wells produce the rest.
“Southern California Edison has continued to add resources to the system over the years,” Hite said. “But we just can’t equip it to the level necessary to eliminate shortages in a one and 120 year event. It just doesn’t make economic sense. It’s probably not in the best interest of the rate payer to do so.”
El Rancho Escondido vineyard, an unincorporated area which sits on 650 acres of lush land, has been subject to concern from residents over water usage, but it holds private water rights, according to Harvey.
“All their planning and approvals go through LA County Regional Planning,” he said.
Despite the heavy restrictions, tourists are still expected to flock to the island this summer.
“Don’t make this a reason to not come over,” Harvey said. “Enjoy the cleanest bay water we’ve had in twelve years. Spend your day swimming in the harbor. Drink a beer, have some bottled water. The impact on your stay is going to be negligible.”