California drought dries up plans for historic gold rush celebration

SACRAMENTO Calif. Mon Jul 28, 2014 6:52pm EDT

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SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California’s drought has claimed yet another historic casualty in this parched capital city - the annual heritage celebration known as Gold Rush Days.

Staged for the past 15 years by tourism groups who turn the city's Old Sacramento district into a dirt-paved scene from the 1850s, the Labor Day weekend tradition was canceled on Monday due to concerns about water use and fire.

Steve Hammond, president and chief executive officer of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that up to 3,000 gallons of water typically are used daily to dampen the tons of dirt strewn over the streets to create a soft surface for horses, wagons and stunt performers.

Attractions typically include Pony Express relays, demonstrations of Gold Rush-era cannons and re-enactments of historic events.

“We have to water continuously to keep the dirt from blowing into stores and onto our guests, and then it takes another hundred thousand gallons or so to clean it all up when it’s over,” said Hammond, who noted that, with conditions so dry, the cannons also posed a potential fire hazard.

“It was obviously a difficult choice, but with the governor and the city and county asking people who live here to avoid wasting water, we thought that postponing it until 2015 was the diligent thing to do," he said.

California has ramped up water conservation efforts as a worsening three-year drought has dried up lakes and rivers, heightened wildfire risks, depleted reservoirs and even crisped the lawn of the Capitol.

Old Sacramento merchants expressed disappointment with the decision, which Hammond said came after “about a month” of debate among stakeholders, including municipal and tourism groups.

“This is going to hurt for us,” said Chris McSwain, executive director of the Old Sacramento Business Association. “People certainly understand the circumstances, but that doesn’t change the impact for a family-owned business.”

McSwain said about 120 retailers, restaurants, museums and other enterprises do business in Old Sacramento, a long-standing tourist attraction in the city. Though the district will remain open for business and is planning a number of alternative events for the Aug. 30-Sept. 1 Labor Day weekend, businesses there will miss the extra Gold Rush Days foot traffic, he said.

“Labor Day weekend will still be our biggest weekend of the summer,” McSwain said. “It just won’t be as big this year.”

(Reporting by Shawn Hubler; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Eric Beech)

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