Building a waterpark is never easy. But it’s particularly difficult when water is scarce. Just ask the people who tried to break ground on projects during California’s historic drought. They faced strong opposition, either in the form of skittish investors or the public’s misperception that waterparks disproportionately waste water. Though it was a difficult period, the unrelenting dry spell that parched the Golden State offered some valuable lessons. Here are three key takeaways.


“Many customers are under the impression that the water is not recycled — rather it’s put in and drained constantly so that there’s a constant loss of water,” says David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors in Cleveland.

That explains the uproar over proposed projects when water is at a premium. And yet most people don’t think twice about the lush green fields where their kids play soccer.

While the industry knows that waterparks use relatively little water compared to other facilities, such as golf courses, policy makers and the general public aren’t as clued in. The onus falls on developers to combat this mistaken reputation.

So, when proposing a project, come prepared with facts.

“On a day-to-day basis, an aquatics facility would use 36% less water than a public park would … and 82% less than a medium-density, single-family housing unit would on the same-sized site,” says Justin Caron, principal at Aquatic Design Group.

The Carlsbad, Calif.-based firm arrived at those figures after conducting a study to assure officials that a proposed aquatic center in arid Riverside County (Calif.) would serve as a water-wise alternative. That’s how the firm, along with RJM Design Group, got the go-ahead to build The Cove, a publicly owned facility in Southern California’s Jurupa Valley. This was in 2012, one year into the Golden State’s epic drought. “They knew they were going to get a lot of public pushback on this,” Caron says.

But the study helped overcome apprehensions. “Education is the first step in a drought-conscience area,” he adds.

Public officials also should highlight city efforts to curb water use overall. That’s how Linda Smith, assistant manager at the City of Dublin, Calif., tried to allay concerns when a $35 million aquatics project called The Wave forged ahead even after the governor declared a drought emergency.

She explained that, in recent years, the Bay Area city’s water district had invested significantly in a recycled-water treatment center. By 2016, 93% percent of its parks were irrigated with non-potable water, Smith says. Officials even invited the public to fill up tanks with recycled water so they could maintain lush lawns.

“That allowed us to keep things green in Dublin when everything else was browning out,” Smith says.

Signs throughout the city declared Dublin a water-wise city. But to critics, the big waterpark under way indicated otherwise.


To gain the public’s trust and the government’s partnership, you must show that you share their concern about saving water.

First, it helps to highlight a facility’s green features, advises Franceen Gonzales, executive vice president of WhiteWater’s division overseeing North and South America.

For example, the public might be interested in learning how attractions are designed to conserve as much water as possible.

Some waterslides are designed with a software program that predicts how a raft will behave when spiraling down the chute. Not only is this a wise safety precaution, it can help the finished product operate more efficiently.

Without designing through a simulation, designers have only a rough idea of how much water it will take to power a raft through. “So the tendency is to put in big pumps and a lot of water in the system, so that when they test it, there is a wide range of water and they can change the way the ride works by changing the flow,” Gonzales says.

Design software more accurately predicts the amount of water needed, allowing for smaller, water-saving tanks and smaller pumps that save energy.

Plus, some slides today are designed with taller sidewalls. This not only adds more soaking thrills by curling the water up and over guests as they careen around corners — it also prevents water-wasting splash-out.

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Designers also conserve by implementing regenerative media filters, which eliminate the need to backwash. Developers also can take advantage of water-saving opportunities in restrooms, showers and kitchens by equipping them with environmentally friendly features, such as low-flow toilets.

To curb evaporation, consider limiting the number of spray features and fountains, Caron adds, and erect wind barriers.

When investing in ecological features, take Gonzales’ advice: “Don’t be afraid to advertise it, because people are making decisions based on social responsibility.”

Waterpark developers and operators also should draft a drought-management plan. This important document outlines your best operating practices should a jurisdiction demand a water reduction. It also helps reinforce your good citizenship.

Generally, these mandates require facilities to respond appropriately to various stages of water restrictions. For example, a Level 1 water emergency might require a waterpark to limit use by 10 percent; Level 2 by 20 percent, and so on.

When this happens, operators can consult their drought management plans (DMP) to see which attractions or features to close to meet the requirement.

To draft a plan, you may need outside expertise.

“What it takes is somebody with an architectural engineering background who understands water usage, because it comes down to the particulars of how much water you’re going to save by not doing something,” such as temporarily shutting down a waterslide or closing a food service kiosk or two, advises Eric Hansen, director of development services at Hotel & Leisure Advisors.

Even though you may never have to use a DMP, it’s wise for waterparks to have one just in case. If nothing else, it demonstrates to city council members and other local officials that you take drought concerns seriously.

“It’s a good way for waterparks to become good community stewards and it can help educate people about reclamation” says Hansen, referring to the amount of water that’s recirculated, rather than consumed.


Once plans gain enough momentum, developers have to stick with them. Smith, for instance, admits the timing for the waterpark in Dublin wasn’t ideal, but the city’s hands were tied.

“We were contractually obligated to proceed,” she says, adding that the amount of negative attention the project garnered was “rough.”

Delaying construction wasn’t an option, because costs would have continued to skyrocket. Besides, officials noted, this facility was a necessity. The existing public pool was aging beyond repair, and if residents wanted a place for their children’s swim lessons and their own summer respite, the project had to move on.

Smith said Dublin officials explored the possibility of finishing construction, then waiting to open until the drought was over. Fortunately, it didn’t have to come to that. The Wave was completed just before the governor officially lifted water restrictions.

“This was one of those scenarios … where you know that, despite the public criticism that comes your way, at the end of the day you’re making the right decision,” Smith says.

Today, the community enjoys a waterpark that is a model of efficiency. The Wave is certified LEED Silver.

Other times, developers have to learn the hardest lesson of all: Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

Mike Riedel was in the early stages of developing a waterpark in Temecula, Calif. when he ran into a hitch: The water district couldn’t commit to delivering 6 million gallons. First, it would have to perform a “demand offset” study, meaning it would have to find a way to support the waterpark without increasing demand overall, a process that would take 60 to 90 days.

Because of that, the waterpark couldn’t open by summer, and the developer’s lender backed out.

No matter. Riedel is on to something new.

He’s currently in the process of resurrecting Wild Rivers, the popular Irvine, Calif. waterpark that closed in 2011. It could open again as early as May 2019.

With the drought behind him, he doesn’t foresee any hang-ups.

Says Riedel, Wild Rivers’ president: “We’re in the negotiation process with [the city], and they seem to be an excited and committed partner.”