California's drought no match for its tourism industry

Low water levels are visible at the Los Capitancillos Recharge Ponds in San Jose, Calif.
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Low water levels are visible at the Los Capitancillos Recharge Ponds in San Jose, Calif.

What drought?

Despite strict water restrictions in California, water parks like Splash Mountain are still splashing, fairways are still green and showering at hotels (albeit with a suggested time limit) is still possible.

That's what operators at an array of theme parks, golf courses, hotels and lush resorts throughout the state hope travelers will keep in mind, as they make travel plans this summer.

"The drought is affecting California's tourist attractions in very different ways, but most tourists are unlikely to be affected since businesses have merged water conservation practices with their overall operations," said Ryan Becker, vice president of communications at Visit California.

During 2014, travel and tourism expenditures in the state totaled $117.5 billion. That meant jobs for more than 1 million people and $9.3 billion in state and local tax revenues. Given those numbers, there's plenty of incentive for California to keep tourism afloat during these dry times.

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Disney stays open, water parks still gush H2O

Worries about the drought don't seem to be keeping travelers from heading to the Golden State. (Tweet this.)

"We are not seeing any unusual fluctuations in travel to California beyond the expected seasonal summer influx," said Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of business development at Sojern.

And despite some year-over-year drop-offs in a few Golden State spots, Priceline reports that four of the top 10 destinations for Memorial Day are in California: San Diego, Orange County, San Francisco and central Los Angeles.

At least for now, vacationers aren't wringing their hands over the drought.

"Will it make a difference if I ask for a glass of water at the Cliff House [in San Francisco]? I'm thinking, no," said Seattle resident Peg Boettcher. She adds that despite the dry conditions, she's been noticing a lot of television ads for California lately featuring "swimming pools and water and splashing around and bathing suits and the like."

All fountains and water-themed attractions are currently fully operational at Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure Park in Anaheim—including major draws like "It's a Small World," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Grizzly River Run. Thanks to a water conservation program that dates back to 1955, the house that Walt built is still able to pull in thousands of thrill seekers.

"We have the infrastructure in place that allows us to recycle nearly all the water used at the resort," said Disneyland spokeswoman Cathi Killian.

'Close the loop' with recycled water

Knott's Soak City Waterpark also recycles and reuses almost all its water.

"Unlike your toilets and sinks at home, this is a closed loop system, which means the water remains in the system and is constantly tested and treated in a safe manner just like an aquatic swimming pool," Knott's Berry Farm said in a statement.

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In addition to urging guests to reuse towels and forgo daily bed linen changes, many hotels are planting drought-tolerant landscaping that replaces natural lawns with artificial turf. In addition, they are speeding up schedules for installing water efficient toilets.

"Saving water is not a new concept for hotels in California, but now many properties are getting creative with their efforts," said Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco.

"Given the crisis—and it is a crisis from a water standpoint—you have to take it to the minute level," said Tom Klein, regional vice president for the seven Fairmont Hotels and Resorts in California.

Klein said Fairmont guests now receive a card advising of the drought conditions, and explaining how much water can be saved by taking short showers (about 2.5 gallons per minute). They are also encouraged to reuse towels and bed linens (about 20 gallons a day), although its not mandatory.

At resorts with golf courses, "we've reduced sprinkle time and are only watering areas essential to the game," said Klein.

Just off the coast of Southern California, Catalina Island hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants are working hard to meet water restrictions imposed by Southern California Edison. Those efforts actually started eight months before the recent statewide cutbacks announced by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Businesses on the island—and across the Golden State—are going the extra mile to emphasize the importance of conservation.

"Vacation rentals and hotels have mounted small hourglass devices in the showers to get you moving quickly and, where appropriate, restaurants and sandwich shops are using paper plates and disposable cutlery so they don't have to run dishwashers," said Jim Luttjohann, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

At Sierra Mar, the restaurant at Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, executive chef John Cox has his staff using compressed air, instead of the spray nozzle at the kitchen dish station normally used to clean plates.

By doing that "we have been able to reduce the usage of the water in that area by 80 percent, and actually increased productivity," said Cox. Several other restaurants in the state have already switched to this system, while many others are pricing equipment and running numbers on how much they can spend and save.

"California has an estimated 60,000 full-service restaurants," said Cox, "If each of these restaurants switched to compressed air for precleaning plates and could save even just 250 gallons per day, that would equal over 5 billion gallons of water per year."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.