1956 -- Groundbreaking begins on the Casitas Dam


More than a Drop in the Bucket

North Shore
© 2005 Daly Road Graphics


Lush Orchards in the Upper Ojai Valley.  Daly Road Graphics

     Ventura County residents  are not surprised when they turn the tap and clean water comes out every time.  That simple fact is testimony to the triumph of the Casitas reservoir.  Back in the 1890’s, waterborne typhoid fever killed fifty area residents a year. Shotgun-toting farmers stayed up all night guarding their personal reservoirs from water rustlers. 

    As with most of the west, putting water in the right place at the right time has always been a vital concern in Ventura County.  In 1934, the City of Ventura commissioned the engineering firm of Lippincott and Kerr to find answers. They proposed a dam across Coyote creek.  It was turned down by voters, and the county’s thirst worsened.  In the late 40’s residents of Oak View and the Rincon had to have water trucked in.

The Hoffman house      Courtesy the Haley family collection

    Old-timers can remember the days when Lake Casitas was known as the Santa Ana Valley, home to the Alison and Hoffman Ranches.  The Hoffman’s stately Casitas Hacienda was briefly used as a construction office, and then deliberately burned when the dam was completed in 1958.  Rising waters covered the Santa Ana schoolhouse in 1969.

Santa Ana Schoolhouse 
Courtesy of the Connie Hartman Collection

    In 1955, Congressman Charles Teague introduced the Ventura River Project Authorization Bill.  It passed without opposition.  A year later, Congress appropriated $6.4 million, and groundbreaking followed in 1956.

Spillway Casitas
Concrete forms on the Casitas Dam Spillway  
  Old State Route 150 disappears.
Photos Courtesy Casitas Municipal Water District

    Casitas delivers water to fifty thousand customers in the City of Ventura (eastward to Mills Road), north to the Ojai Valley, South to the Rincon beaches and westward to the Santa Barbara county line.  In addition to the earthen dam, the system uses 130 miles of pipeline, five pumping and treatment plants, and six reservoirs for treated water.

Casitas Dam
Visible portion of Casitas Dam at sunset.               Daly Road Graphics

    Recent residents can’t appreciate the size of the dam because only forty feet of it is above the waterline.  Like an earthen iceberg, another 245 feet is under water.  It is pyramid-shaped, with a base 1,860 feet thick.    (An extra 110 feet was added in 2000 as part of an earthquake retrofit.)    Most of the original 9.5 million cubic yards of material was scooped from the valley below.  It stretches over 2,000 feet from end to end. 

The lake, seen looking southwest from Nordhoff Ridge,  turned chocolate brown after catching 
record rainfall in 2005 .  The Channel Islands are on the distant horizon.     
  Daly Road Graphics.

    When full, the reservoir cradles over 82.7 billion gallons of water, some 200 feet down at its deepest point.  The water level dropped in December of 2004 to 533 feet (above sea level) and the tops of drowned trees began to stick up from the surface.  But after our heavy spring rains of 2005 (21.14" in January)  water was actually diverted as the level approached the spillover height of 567 feet. 

    Casitas is fed by local runoff from the Coyote and Santa Ana Creeks, but mostly from a diversion canal that drains the Ventura River during the wet season.   Public Relations officer Ron Merckling explained to us that the reservoir’s primary purpose is storage, not flood control.


Daly Road Graphics

    Oddly, it didn’t occur to the Board members of the original Ventura River Municipal Water District (now the Casitas Municipal Water District) that the lake they were making would someday become a huge recreational and economic asset.  Park Services Manager Brian Roney proudly points out that Casitas operates as an Enterprise Fund, meaning that all Park expenses are paid from gate fees. 

    “No charges are added onto water bills.  Our entrance fees are higher,” he said.  "But last year, Castaic Lake ran a 1.2 million dollar deficit, and was threatened with closure by Los Angeles County, which had to pay the difference.  We are unique.” 

    The Park’s economic impact on the county hasn’t been formally measured, but Roney thinks it is considerable.  “At one point we considered changing road signs to bring more people in over the more scenic route, 150.  But merchants in nearby Oakview and Casitas Springs objected,” he said.

Olympic rowing and canoeing at the lake, 1984.  
Courtesy Casitas Municipal Water District

    In the 1980’s, over a million visitors came every year.  Now, it’s 670-thousand.  Managers try new ideas to draw visitors, such as Frisbee Golf or the Sea Plane Fly-In on May 14th. Radio-controlled airplanes fly in every weekend at the Park's model airplane landing strip. 

Civil War Re-enactors at Casitas,  April 1998            Photos: Daly Road Graphics

    Today, it is the setting for cross-country track meets, and the Native American Indian Powwow.  It hosted the first annual Oktoberfest, and the Autumn Auto Show.

Winefest Renfest
The 2005 Wine Festival attracted over 31-hundred visitors Renaissance Festival.  
Photos Daly Road Graphics

“What I like best about Casitas is the entire venue,” says Paul Thomas, Wine Festival Chairman.  “I’ve taken my boat to Castaic, and by comparison it’s as though that lake had been set down in the middle of a suburb.”

Casitas provides miles of bucolic hiking trails.  
Daly Road Graphics

    Casitas features 32 miles of shoreline, 3,100 acres of rolling hills, oak trees, and a mild Mediterranean climate.  It is only ten miles inland from the ocean; so afternoon breezes keep it cool and drive the sailboats.

Campers witness Ojai Valley's Pink Moment.    Daly Road Graphics.

A survey of campers found that over half come from Ventura County.  Most of the rest travel from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties.   They have twelve campgrounds and 400 campsites to choose from.  These range from simple tents to elaborate RV hookups with power, sewer lines, and even cable TV.  If you don’t have a mobile home, the park will rent one to you, tow it to your site, and set it up.   They also store customers’ RVs, rent bicycles and canoes, and serve food at the cantina.

After ten P.M., when the generators and radios are turned off, refugees from cities are treated to an increasingly hard-to-find experience—silence.

Dave Leathers Dock
Casitas fisherman David Leathers Early morning anglers at the East dock. 
Daly Road Graphics

  Fishermen drop their lines from shore, from docks, and from their own boats (there are two boat launches).  You can rent boats at the marina, where you can see many photos of proud anglers holding up record-sized catches.  Casitas is stocked with catfish, crappie, sunfish, largemouth bass and trout. 

  The number of fishermen has decreased over the years.  Manager Roney attributes that to a changing popular culture.  “My grandfather used to take me fishing.  Now I wind up taking my kids to Little League even though I work at a lake.” 


Water Sign 

    Curiously, one of the things you can’t do in the lake is swim.  Because it is a drinking water supply, state law forbids body contact.  Kids under 13 can visit the Water Adventure, a playground where they can splash and wade through sliding tubes and waterfalls.   Adults can go with the flow in the Lazy River, a quarter-mile artificial stream suitable for inner-tubing.  Several floating, self-contained restrooms (named the S.S. Comfort) are anchored in the lake for boater.

Heron Bussards
A nesting Heron Turkey buzzards and crows fight over fish scraps.
Photos Daly Road Graphics

    Among its other roles, Casitas is a genuine wildlife preserve.  The federal government has spent more than 25-million dollars to buy up land around the lake from the homeowners who lived there.  It will be left as permanent open space, to maintain a clean watershed.   It is home to sixty-five species of birds, including herons and egrets. Frequent visitors often see deer, coyote, foxes, and other creatures.  But the only shooting has come from Disney and TV film crews.  And, oh yes, Civil War Re-Enactors.

Moment Deer
Boaters and Herons share a moment. Deer are a common sight on the surrounding hills.
Photos Daly Road Graphics

    Legally, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns the dam and surrounding land.  Continuing operation is the responsibility of the Casitas Municipal Water District, its General Manager John Johnston, and a five-member, elected Board of Directors.  In January of 2009 the lease expires and Ventura County will take it over.  Negotiations about related problems are underway.

Johnson Casitas
Former Casitas General Manager John Johnston  The District offices in Oak View.
Daly Road Graphics

       One question is: What to do about the obsolete Matilija Dam?  The County would like to remove it, which will affect the amount of water diverted to the reservoir.  It would also allow six million cubic feet of accumulated silt to flow downstream.  “Matilija is a huge and complex issue,” said Park Information officer Ron Milkovic.


The Matilija Dam has been "notched" twice to relieve stress.    Daly Road Graphics

Milkovic explained another project.  In 1996, Steelhead trout were listed as an endangered species.  “NOAA Fisheries estimates that as few as two hundred may survive,” Milkovic said.  “Even though the Ventura River is often bone dry, it used to be a pathway for the trout to spawn near the Matilija reservoir.  The District has spent eight million dollars recently to build a fish ladder for them, and plans to spend another million on enhancing the riverbed.”

Sunset over the Casitas Marina        Daly Road Graphics

        Park Manager Brian Roney told us “I’ve worked at six Lake Facilities in Southern California and Casitas is the best by far.” 

 For More Information, surf to:  www.casitaswater.org  

By Raymond Smith,
for Ventura Life & Style Magazine
with thanks to Ojai Historian Patty Fry


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