Drought: Water scarce but porta-potties are plenty

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Visitors to Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, who need a bathroom have to use portable toilets. Washing up is done with hand dispensers.

Those who throw up tents at the nearby state-operated campground have to forego the outdoor shower stalls. The water is turned off.

It's like that for most of the other 279 state parks as water conservation methods during California's extreme drought mean some of the usual niceties for tourists are in short supply.

"We have closed washrooms and installed chemical portable toilets as part of the mandate to cut back on water," said Vicky Waters, deputy director of public affairs at the Department of California State Parks.

"We've had some complaints about it but most people understand because of the drought why we're doing this," she added.

The cutback on bathrooms in parks and showers in campgrounds started in June, said Waters. She added that there's no way to know when the situation will return to normal.

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Jennifer Smith and her husband Harvey operate Harvey's Honey Huts in Cambria, California, and have been supplying the portable facilities to the Hearst Castle park.

"We've also been providing portable toilets in the business area around here since February," said Jennifer Smith on a phone call to CNBC from Arizona where she and her husband were vacationing.

"We've been busy. This is the first time we've felt like we could take a break," she said.

State tourism booming

As many California residents suffer drinking water shortages, unwashed cars, brown lawns and possible fines for overusing water because of the drought, tourism is very much alive.

The latest figures show more than 235 million people traveled in California in 2013. Those travelers spent $109.6 billion in the state, an all-time high in both actual and inflation-adjusted dollars, according to Visit California.

"The drought is on our minds here but it thankfully hasn't slowed down tourism," said Ryan Becker, director of communications for Visit California.

"But it is a wait-and-see situation when it comes to the drought," Becker said.

While Gov. Jerry Brown's executive order on water conservation, issued this past summer, is a mandate for state parks, it's more of a strong request for businesses.

Some restaurants in the state are serving water only on request. In Santa Cruz, the City Council moved to have restaurants there prohibited from serving water—unless it is requested.

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One major tourist attraction in the state said they're doing their part to conserve water—and have done so even before the recent drought started.

David Koontz is communications director at SeaWorld San Diego. In an email to CNBC, he said that the attraction's efforts began in 2008

"We've engaged in a variety of initiatives including best practices improvement, equipment and systems upgrades, and landscaping programs to reduce water usage in the park," Koontz wrote.

That includes a new restroom that will use saltwater for toilets and urinals and save more than 2 million gallons of freshwater annually starting in 2015, Koontz wrote.

He said the drought has not affected tourism numbers as far as he could tell.

A media relations representative for Disneyland in California sent CNBC an email pointing to a page on its website noting what it's doing to conserve water.

Among other efforts, it outlines practices on drainage and irrigation as well as water filtration and reuse in buildings. Currently there are no portable toilets at the theme park, the spokesman said.

Cutbacks having effect

Some of the cutback efforts are having an impact, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Water conservation efforts in California's urban communities continued their upward trend, climbing to 11.5 percent statewide for August, according to the latest retail water supplier report released this month.

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The August statewide water saving rate is a significant jump from the 7.5 percent reported in July and 4 percent in June, as compared with a year ago.

But much more needs to be done, said Doug Carlson, information officer with the California Department of Water Resources.

"The message to everyone is conserve water," Carlson said. "If we don't do more now, we'll have to do more later."

'Breaking even ... at this point'

This is not the first time Harvey's Honey Huts has provided portable toilets for the Hearst Castle.

Jennifer Smith said that 25 years ago during another California drought, her company was called on to provide services but that a special event party at the state park drew complaints about the portable toilets and that ended the deal.

"They threw up such a stink about it, I got burned by the experience," she said without any trace of sarcasm.

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Smith said she had to go through a bidding process while getting some firm commitments from the state to get the current contracts for the Hearst Castle and the campground. Both run until spring of next year.

"If it rains, the contracts may end," she added.

"We spent thousands of dollars buying more toilets," Smith said. "I won't know how we do until this all ends. I'm breaking even more or less at this point."