Politics and car washing don’t often collide, but when circumstances bring the two together in ways that could have a negative impact on your business, are you prepared?

From approximately 2011 through May of 2015, we suffered the most catastrophic drought on record for our community in north central Texas, where, in the city of Wichita Falls, we operate several car washes. Above average temperatures and winds, combined with well below average rainfall, sent our reservoirs to a dangerously low combined level of 19.8 percent. With no ground water to supply our community, we rely solely on surface water provided by two reservoirs: Lake Arrowhead and Lake Kickapoo. On November 10, 2014 we were at a combined lake level of 21.5 percent with no relief in sight. The chart below reflects just how precarious our situation was. We had fallen well below national ratings of “emergency” and “disaster” into “catastrophe.” Fears were running high.

When fear sets in, we are all susceptible to grasping at straws for solutions. The problem is that an extended drought often happens much faster than impactful solutions can be implemented. Solutions such as pipelines from areas with ground water, establishing additional reservoirs, and capturing river water are subject to extensive regulatory hurdles, not to mention financial and construction barriers.

PRIOR PREPARATIONS

One thing our community did have going for it was an extremely sophisticated water treatment facility. After a lesser drought in the mid 1990s, the process was begun to renovate and update our water treatment facilities, with the initial goal of being able to treat water from reservoirs with greater salinity that could act as emergency or back-up reservoirs during extended drought periods. The pressure was squarely on our public works department and our city staff to find solutions to the drought.

A water development board was formed to advise on issues regarding water conservation and potential mitigating factors to the drought. City staff had their hands full with massive regulatory issues to be able to convert our water treatment plant into a direct potable reuse plant. This would allow our community to recapture our effluent water by resending it back to the treatment facility instead of back to a reservoir. Our mayor and other elected officials were continuously bombarded with questions, concerns, and demands from concerned citizens and businesses.

As a citizen of our great city, I cannot stress enough how proud I am of the never-say-die attitude we as a community exhibited. Our elected officials, city staff, business community, civic organizations, and citizens all shared in a common battle and displayed a work ethic to do our part. It is not uncommon in disaster and tragedy for a community to come together, and Wichita Falls was no different in that regard. But there were cracks and fissures in that unity along the way, and lessons to be learned.

DROUGHT RESPONSE PLANS

Almost every community has emergency planning documents. In the case of drought emergencies, these can come in the form of a drought response plan. In Texas, many communities are required to file these plans with the state every so many years. I would encourage each of you to familiarize yourself with your community’s drought response plans, if any, because these documents provide significant power to a city staff and, in our case, locally to our mayor to enact “emergency measures” to aid in dealing with a drought. Interpretation of the intent, and at times even the literal design of portions of such plans, became the subject of disagreement and debate.

Lake Arrowhead Pier during the drought, exact date unknown.

Drought, by its nature, inflicts consequences on many. Farmers and ranchers are some of the first to be impacted and suffer from drought. As yard-watering restrictions are implemented, nurseries and landscapers suffer. Golf courses and other recreational interests are impacted by limitations on watering. Each of us felt the pressure and was forced to adapt. Trees and vegetation were lost, and pools were closed or remained open by shipping in water at great expense. You were no longer “given” water at a restaurant unless you requested such.

IMPACT ON CAR WASHING

The biggest source of contention saw the car wash industry wrapped up in an unfortunate fight for survival in our community. Imbedded in the language of the drought response plan is the term “unnecessary,” that allows the city to restrict water access for “unnecessary” uses and to businesses deemed “unnecessary” by city staff. Under stage 3 restrictions, car owners were prohibited from washing their cars at home, and commercial car washes were restricted to only six days of operation per week. The day you were to cease operation was determined by a zoning map.

A mostly united car wash industry locally, with support from our regional association (Southwest Car Wash Association) and the International Carwash Association, agreed to do our part and offered little resistance to this one-day restriction. We were all committed to leading the way in terms of conservation and many local car wash operators worked diligently to implement reclaim practices, if they did not have them before, and to further optimize those systems if they already had them. We were no different, and managed to reduce our city-water use by over 40 percent in a one-year period early in the drought, while washing the same number of vehicles.

Continued research, experimentation, and implementation led All American Car Washes to become one of the most efficient car wash operations in the business, with continued substantial drops in city-water dependency. When Stage 4 was enacted, there was a push by some city officials to restrict all commercial car washes from using city water. An agreement was reached that saw our industry restricted to being open only five days per week. All car washes were to be closed on Sundays and Mondays. This lasted well over a year and had an impact on revenues. Not only were we hampered by these new restrictions but, in an effort to conserve water, many consumers were also making a personal choice not to wash their vehicles as frequently. We fully supported individuals making a decision to not wash as often, but being restricted from operation by government is a whole other matter.

CAR WASHES TARGETED

As the drought dragged on, under pressure to “do something,” the water development board turned its attention to car washes and came to the conclusion that washing a car was “unnecessary,” that restricting commercial car washes from access to city water was a viable solution, and that it would have a significant impact on overall daily water usage within our community of almost 110,000. Unfortunately they were misguided, uninformed, and, frankly, dead wrong.

It’s important to note that not one other single industry was deemed unnecessary by this board or city officials, not a single one. At the root of this is the fact that our industry is still predominantly locally and family-owned. We became the low-hanging fruit. Cities will clamor and fall over themselves to attract outside businesses to relocate to them. They are rightly fearful of chasing outside businesses off. However, locally owned businesses are less protected by this fear that “well, they will pick up and move/open elsewhere.” Sadly we were told this very thing by a member of the water development board in a meeting, where we were told that our industry was targeted for severe restrictions.

When asked if they planned to restrict other industries, such as restaurants, one board member responded with, “What? You want us to have this kind of meeting with them?” He was indignant and you could read the fear of “chasing off” a Red Lobster, Olive Garden, or other national chain. Look, as a community member, I wholeheartedly agree we need those businesses and they contribute to quality of life. What I don’t agree with is that washing cars is unnecessary and does not contribute to quality of life for a community.

Ask a car dealer how easy it is to sell a dirty car. Emergency vehicles must remain clean as a safety precaution. Quite simply, a person’s vehicle is most often his or her second biggest investment and certainly a substantial one under any circumstance. It can be argued that a regularly cleaned and maintained vehicle holds its value better and in fact runs better and is more efficient. Let me make it clear: we were never in favor of the targeting of or placing excessive restrictions on any industry. However, we were proponents of all industry self-restricting and finding ways to conserve water within their own operations.

A “let’s all feel the pinprick” versus a “slash the throat of a sacrificial industry” approach.

EDUCATION CAMPAIGN

People don’t know what they don’t know. Two things became apparent during the numerous meetings we had with our city staff, and elected officials. The first was that a false perception was driving policy, and even more disturbing was that many in our city believed this false perception to be true. I believe that the only way to counter any perception is with reality, using truth and evidence to support that truth. It was to that end, that we began gathering as much data as we could — not only locally, but also regionally, nationally, and even internationally on water use, specifically by commercial car washes.

Once gathered, we implemented an educational campaign to educate the public and our elected officials as well. We turned our marketing dollars, once used to promote a program or special to draw customers into our washes, towards education. I spoke locally to every civic and business group that would have me; we met with every city councilor many times over to educate them on the process of washing a car, the advancement in equipment and technology, and the benefits to commercial car washing.

The impact of the education effort became apparent from the results of two surveys conducted one year apart. A local news source ran a straightforward survey question that asked: “Should car washes be closed?” Prior to our concerted efforts to educate the public about the benefits of commercial car washing with respect to our water supply, the response to this survey saw over 93 percent of respondents answering “yes,” much to our dismay. Roughly a year later the same source ran the exact same survey question, and over 60 percent of respondents said “no.” Less than 20 percent responded “yes” with the rest unsure. The process was working! Many elected officials took the time to listen and learn, and began to defend and promote treating the commercial car wash industry as equal to other industries. Some even held the conservation efforts of professional car washes up as examples for all businesses to follow.

REASON PREVAILS

The first city council meeting of April 2015 saw a packed house made up of car wash owners and operators, local business people who came to offer support, and other interested parties. Up for vote was to enact Stage 5 restrictions. Essentially, the choice was between closing commercial car washes (which was to be triggered by reservoir levels falling below 20 percent; we reached 19.8 percent at end or March), or treating the car wash industry like every other and allowing us to continue to operate. Tensions were high, and after what was surely one of the longest council meetings in history for our community — one that saw impassioned speeches, tears, and cracked voices — a vote was called for. We truly did not know how this vote would go, we were sure of two opponents and two allies on the council, the remaining votes had vacillated between support and compromise for staff proposals. In what was a historic vote, the car wash industry was victorious in a four for and two against votes with one vote absent.

It takes a flood to solve a drought. Mid May of 2015 saw significant rainfall and within weeks our lakes were full. While the urgency caused by impending doom is gone, it’s important to always be vigilant. It is incumbent upon us as an industry to lead the way in water conservation, to be involved locally with our government, and to educate our lawmakers and customers. I hope that you never face the political pressure we did but, if you find yourself in such a battle, use facts to dispel false perceptions and appeal to reason over emotion and I am sure you will win the day.

Jim Cadotte is an industry veteran and general manager of All American Super Car Washes in Wichita Falls, TX and Lawton, OK. You can visit the operation on the web at www.allamericansupercarwash.com.