What Are CA Bartenders Doing About the Drought?

California is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history. Many bars continue to do business as usual, but as the situation worsens a growing number of bartenders are finding ways to help conserve the state's water supply.

california drought

The Golden State is in danger of drying up. But you’d never know it by sitting at a bar in Los Angeles or San Francisco, where most bartenders work behind a virtual garden of fresh produce stocked for seasonal cocktails, and—at the end of the night—gallons of hot water are run over mounds of ice just to “burn” the evening’s leftover supply.

Yet 80 percent of the state is in “extreme drought” and 36 percent—encompassing the state’s main agricultural areas in Central California—is in “exceptional drought” (the worst on the scale). Crop and pasture losses are widespread and water emergencies are brought on by shortages in reservoirs and wells.

In fact, the situation is so dire that Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January and then issued an executive order in April to redouble state drought actions. Threatened by a drilling frenzy of worried farmers, the groundwater that the Central Valley has historically relied on to get through parched times is being depleted. And with no El Niño in sight, things are getting scary. A study from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences this past May predicts that due to the drought, 410,000 acres are being fallowed, cutting 14,500 jobs and resulting in the state’s loss of $1.7 billion, not including the toll on other industries and firefighting costs. If this drought continues, in “2015 the socioeconomic impacts will likely be much more severe.”

L.A.’s Mark and Jonnie Houston of Houston Hospitality, who own some of their bars’ buildings, felt the drought’s effects immediately. “In October, the water bill went from $5,000 to $21,000. Combine mopping, burning ice and rinsing every tin at the [nine] bars we own, every day, and it adds up quick,” says Mark.

While California’s wine growers are already dealing with the fallout, struggling to hold on to productive crops just to make this year’s vintage, California’s other drink-makers—craft bartenders—continue to run business behind the bar as usual: burning ice, serving every guest water without request and sourcing produce for what has become known as the “West Coast style” of cocktails—all this despite the unavailability of certain produce and the threat of fruit and vegetable prices increasing by five to six percent in the coming months.

This is in stark contrast to the creative workarounds bartenders came up with in response to the recent lime crisis when lime prices shot up and stock became extremely scarce. So, why are bartenders seemingly unfazed when other businesses are taking measures to minimize their use? Even restaurants only run dishwashers when full and serve water upon guests’ request.

It comes down to the fact that the effects of the drought are seemingly intangible. “It doesn’t seem so dire,” says Jon Santer owner of Prizefighter in the Bay Area. “When you turn on the tap, you still get water.” Bartenders find themselves being more concerned at home than at their bars. Even many bar owners haven’t felt the effects yet, especially in Northern California. “It hasn’t affected us at that level of business yet,” says Santer. “So if it becomes harder to get things, and things become exponentially more expensive then yes, [as a bar owner] I’m worried.”

On the other hand, L.A.’s Mark and Jonnie Houston of Houston Hospitality (La Descarga, Pour Vous, Harvard & Stone), who own some of their bars’ buildings, felt the drought’s effects immediately. “In October, the water bill went from $5,000 to $21,000. Combine mopping, burning ice and rinsing every tin at the [nine] bars we own, every day, and it adds up quick,” says Mark. In order to conserve water, they made drastic changes: installing waterless urinals, requiring barbacks to run only full dishwasher loads and sweeping rather than spraying down walkways to clean. “We saved about 33 percent of our bill by making these changes,” says Jonnie.

Trevor Easter of Noble Experiment in San Diego is hoping to bring awareness of the drought to his fellow bartenders. “In my bartender career, water usage has never been a topic. We picked up the habit of not really thinking about it because we’re concerned about other things like customer service and keeping the night rolling,” he says. “We’re letting it all waste away.” Through social media he’s asked the cocktail community to simply stop burning ice, suggesting instead to dispose of it by watering plants outside of the bar or just letting it melt in a gutter. “Just the small change to throw it outside saves gallons of running water,” said Easter.

Thus far, many bartenders and bar owners—like David Kaplan of cocktail consulting company Proprietors LLC and co-owner of downtown L.A. bar Honeycut, and Erick Castro of San Diego’s Polite Provisions—have heard Easter’s message have traded burning ice for watering plants. The larger cocktail community, which is known for rallying together for causes like breast cancer research with Speed Rack and aiding victims of Hurricane Sandy, will hopefully help push the conversation forward.

“We’re starting to be more conscious of the impact we have,” says Easter referring the cocktail community as a whole. “I don’t see why we can’t rally and conserve a shit load of water.”

Caroline Pardilla is a writer in Los Angeles. One of the city's first cocktail writers, she has written for Los Angeles Magazine, LAist and BBC Travel. Caroline has won three LA Weekly web awards.