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Originally published Monday, August 11, 2014 at 3:21 PM

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Tourists flood Calif.’s Catalina, but island is running dry

After major renovations, island near L.A. enjoys tourism boom but drought could curtail visitors, hurt economy.


The New York Times

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AVALON, Calif. — Just an hourlong ferry ride from Los Angeles, Catalina Island is enjoying a renaissance. After years of declining tourism, businesses here have spent more than $40 million updating this quaint island town. Hotels have been remodeled and new restaurants added. A zip line overlooking the ocean was installed. The beach — long among the dirtiest in California, befouled by an aging sewer system — was cleaned up.

The plan worked. Tourists have been flooding off ferries here in near-record numbers this year.

There is just one problem: Catalina is quickly running out of water, a situation that is threatening to curtail the island’s economic resurgence.

With the island’s reservoir approaching a record low, draconian conservation measures are going into effect. Starting this week, every business and home will be required to cut water use by 25 percent.

While several other communities in California face a more imminent danger of the taps running dry, Catalina is in a unique position because of the tourist economy here. With about 1 million visitors a year, the amount of water that the island requires each summer is many times more than what its 4,000 full-time residents consume. And strict water rationing may imperil the island’s viability as a summer destination: Already, tourists have been feeling the drought’s squeeze on Avalon, the island’s only city.

Signs in hotel rooms beg guests to keep showers brief. Some restaurants are beginning to serve food on paper plates to reduce dishwashing. When customers ask for water, they are offered bottled water for 50 cents. Hotels plan to start sending some of their sheets and towels to be laundered on the mainland, a huge expense.

If the drought continues into next year, even these measures may not be enough. By spring, a 50 percent reduction in water use could be mandated. At that point, hotels would be likely to close some rooms, and jobs here would begin to evaporate.

Unlike cities on the mainland, Catalina cannot simply pipe in water from elsewhere. Instead, the island offers a sobering glimpse of the sacrifices, both personal and economic, that are necessary to survive in California without imported water — a prospect that more California communities may have to face as the population continues to grow and the climate gets even drier.

“We think we’re ahead of what a lot of California will have to deal with in the future,” said Ben Harvey, the city manager of Avalon.



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