Roger Haley grew up at the bottom of Lake Casitas. "It was one of the most beautiful locations in the county. Just magnificent," he says. "We have a lot of the newcomers to the Ojai Valley, they have no idea. They think that what they see [in this lake] is all that's good and natural. And they just have no idea."
The lake Haley is describing is a bowl of land that, a half century ago, became a giant, man-made bucket to serve Ventura, a Southern California coastal community midway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Given the peculiarities of the region's geography, Ventura can be seen as an instructive microcosm. Its shape and natural systems are similar to California as a whole — a mirror on a smaller scale of the state's massive Sierra Nevada mountain range, which wraps around and waters the fertile alluvial plain of the Central Valley. In Ventura, however, it's the Coast Range and Tehatchapi mountains that shed water down three rivers through the most productive farmland in California; and then plunge, if any water is left, toward the surfers on Ventura's glorious beaches.
To make Ventura matters even more emblematic, consider this: California itself has become the primary fruit and vegetable garden for the rest of the U.S. — and, in the case of many commodities, for cities and towns well beyond our shores. That makes the fields in this little county some of the most valuable farmland in the world. So whatever happens to the water here — including each gallon in Lake Casitas — ripples in some fashion through the entire world's economy.
In the midst of this landscape, Lake Casitas sits as an emblem of the state's outsized, mid-20th century agricultural audacity; and, at the same time, as a call to confront a new reality.
"The 'Original Take,' I call it," Haley says. "We lost 4,400 acres for that lake there. My parents litigated with the bureau for something like six or eight years. Then they just threw in the towel." The house he grew up in — a sprawling hacienda designed by renowned architect Wallace Neff, with adobe walls four-feet thick, exposed beams, tiled and wooden floors, all of it open to views of the headwaters of creeks that would ultimately become the lake — was dynamited in 1956.
The sight of that reservoir today — just a stone's throw from Haley's current home — is jarring. Former high water marks are like forgotten memories. Haley's cattle — corriente, a small breed brought to the new world from Spain and better suited to drought than typical American beef cows — stare down beneath heavy horns from their hillside pastures. Tree stumps and other remnants of Haley's youth are faintly visible now in the lake's muddy bottom. You can even see the light curlicues of old roads and the rock foundation of the Santa Ana schoolhouse.
"You want to know something sad?" says Haley. "I'll tell you. We have 43,000 oak trees on our land. We have 4,000 on the ground right now and we're going to lose about another 13,000. There are a few historic trees, trees we will preserve. Magnificent trees. But we can't possibly save them all. We have one of the oldest sycamores in the valley, and I will water them if I can. But we've lost 23 already."
Then, with a sudden boom in his voice, he says, "This is the driest it's ever been!"
Lake Casitas, says Ron Merkling, public affairs and resource manager for the Casitas Municipal Water District, is "like a mini State Water Project." He is referring, of course, to the famously ambitious system for water delivery that California launched back in 1960. In the words of then-Governor Edmond "Pat" Brown (father of California's current governor, Jerry Brown), the project's purpose was to "correct an accident of people and geography." The idea was to bring water from Northern California rivers to the population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and the farms along the way.
As the Lake Casitas reservoir has receded, due to both drought and rising water demands, old grazing meadows long since buried have come alive again | (Roger Haley/Courtesy Craftsmanship)
The State Water Project (or SWP) was a titanic act of will as controversial as it was complex — a network of pump-stations, hydraulic power plants, reservoirs, dams, and 700 miles of aqueduct — promising to fulfill the state's water needs for the next 75 years. When the project was launched, Lake Casitas was just four years old, full of all the hope and promise that are typical of the young. So its parents, the city of Ventura and neighboring agriculture interests, never joined the SWP delivery system.
Eventually the multi-phase SWP, funded by an unprecedented $1.75 billion bond in 1960, was designed to deliver an astounding 4.2 million acre-feet of water across the state every year. But it never got close. Over time, the project averaged about half that, or 2.4 million acre-feet each year. One reason is that builders were blocked from tapping certain Northern California rivers, so much of the build-out went unrealized. Water is slippery business in California. This is especially true now. Given the state's long-term drought, and the prospect that climate change might make drought a regular if not permanent fact of California life, much of the state's water may not come from the SWP any more, but instead from a source that is essentially invisible.
The drought-proof container
"There it is," says Haley, laying a worn finger on a family photo album. "Where I grew up, Casa Casitas." The white stucco house stands out starkly against a spread of oaks, strewn like black wool across hillsides that go on forever. He turns the page: Spacious outbuildings and old fashioned people. Turns the page: a patio room with a built-in cast-iron barbecue the size of a small car. He sighs: "There it was …"
Today, Haley lives just a stone's throw from the lake's eastern shore. Despite all the lost land and family history, and with his well, as he puts it, "sucking sand," he acknowledges that he has become completely dependent on Lake Casitas. "We'd be f*cked without that lake. You and me and everybody else."
Lake Casitas, seen from the crest of Red Mountain, is now at 35 percent capacity — a full 79 feet below its high-water mark and the lowest it's ever been. The lake sits at the confluence of Santa Ana and Coyote creeks, two major tributaries of the adjacent Ventura River. The lake was last full in 1998. | (Crawford Coates/Courtesy Craftsmanship)
Rainfall for the Ventura River Valley area is described in local reports as "highly fluctuating" — a model euphemism if there ever was one. While the area averages 14 inches a year, we see annual totals that range anywhere from 5 to 40 inches. The longest drought on record for the region began in 1944. Haley's father, he says, "packed up the tent and the herd and left for where the water was." Farmers, however, suffer in place. "The old timers in the valley all remember the drought of the 1940s," says Emily Thatcher Ayala, a citrus grower and packer at Friends Ranch, whose family settled there in the 1870s. "No one had wells in the valley then. When the streams all finally dried up, my grandfather and great uncle dug what I believe was the first well here, all by hand. They watered with barrels and horses, tree by tree."
Drought persisted into the post-War years. By this time — and in the space of less than a decade — farms and residents throughout the valley had become reliant on well water. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was on a dam-building tear across the 17 western states of its operation. In October of 1952 a group calling itself the Ventura River Municipal Water District, inspired by large federal dam projects in neighboring counties, coalesced to advocate for a local project of its own. The cornerstone was Lake Casitas; after a nearly unanimous vote of enthusiasm from county residents, the project was fast-tracked and broke ground on August 27, 1956. An 8-year-old Roger Haley was in school that day, and therefore did not see the blast of dynamite that brought his house down.
"The idea with Casitas was that it was drought-proof," says Duane Georgeson, who started working with the Municipal Water Project in Los Angeles in 1959 and has worked as a water engineer and manager throughout the state. By the winter of 1958, the new basin for Casitas began to fill–thanks to channels uphill that were dug to divert water from the Ventura River. After initially rising slowly during dry years, on March 31, 1978, the lake spilled over, achieving its full potential of 254,000 acre-feet of water. In the summer of 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics hosted canoeing and rowing events on a robustly blue Lake Casitas.
Then, in the 1990s, drought returned to Southern California, forcing residents in nearby Santa Barbara to approve an SWP spur — under duress and at huge expense. Meanwhile, the city of Ventura was, as Georgeson puts it, "sitting pretty." As recently as 2005, the lake has remained near capacity. It's been in steady decline since.
This cannot be entirely blamed on the drought. As the city of Ventura, nearby towns, and surrounding farmers have all demanded more and more from the lake, the overall watershed has suffered the consequences. Today the lake sits 79 vertical feet below its high-water mark. Its fingers have turned to meadows. Former islands are hills. Competition for what remains has grown ugly. An environmental group has sued the California State Water Resources Control Board–and the city of Ventura–claiming that the board has allowed the city to irresponsibly overdraw the lake's primary source: the Ventura River. The city in turn sued the agency managing Casitas, some upriver water districts, and hundreds of private well owners. ("The nuclear option," one water board member called it.) The case awaits decision from the Superior Court of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Ventura residents, who are increasingly dependent on the lake as wells are depleted, are told that Casitas still offers four years' capacity. But somehow these reassurances don't provide their old solace. "Lake Casitas," says Shana Epstein, general manager of the Ventura City Water Department, "is our most visible stress."
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