Once a beautiful oasis for fishing, boating and casual strolls, Sinaloa Lake now resembles nothing more than a vast green hole filled mostly with trees and weeds.
Three years have passed since the lake was reduced to a muddy pond after heavy rainstorms caused two slides on the face of its earthen dam. Fearful that the dam would collapse, state officials ordered that the lake be drained and the dam destroyed.
The action prompted a $4-million lawsuit, awaiting a new trial date in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The Sinaloa Lake Owners Assn., which owns the lake, accuses the state Department of Safety of Dams, Ventura County and the City of Simi Valley of violating civil rights by unlawfully destroying private property.
"The state . . . destroyed our dam on the pretext that there was a danger to life and property," said Bill Hodson, Sinaloa Lake resident and president of the association. "For 3 1/2 years we've been without one of the major amenities for which we bought and built our homes."
24 Homes on the Rim
Hodson said the lake, off Madera Road at the southwest corner of Simi Valley, had been the focal point in the life style of 24 families living on its rim. It also was a wildlife habitat, attracting, among other things, migrating Canadian geese.
"We were a few miles by automobile from San Fernando Valley," Hodson said, "but we were miles away in tranquillity."
The Sinaloa Lake Owners Assn., formed in the early 1960s, bought the 12-acre, 35-foot deep lake from a rancher who used it to irrigate his orange groves. As the owners, residents were responsible for the upkeep of the dam under the supervision of the Department of Safety of Dams.
According to a statement filed on behalf of six employees of the state Department of Safety of Dams, homeowners were notified in February, 1983, that numerous repairs were needed on the dam. These included removing obstructions to a spillway channel, clearing the face of the embankment, investigating the source of seepage of a downstream valve vault and investigating the seismic stability of the embankment and its foundation.
However, the letter was sent to a former president of the Sinaloa Lake Homeowners Assn. and the state, in court papers, asserted that there was no record in the group's minutes of it having been discussed at the association's March 1 meeting.
According to court records filed by lawyers for Department of Safety of Dams officials, the dam began overflowing through a spillway on Irvine Road in late February, 1983, after heavy rains fell in the Simi Valley area.
The heaviest rain fell between March 1 and March 4. On March 2, a resident in the area noticed that saturated soil was beginning to fall away along the western edge of the dam. Alerted by the resident, county and city employees watched the dam. Later that day, a portion of the dam face fell away.
That night, Simi Valley workers covered the dam's surface with plastic and opened all floodgates that were operable. They also ordered the evacuation of area residents. Shortly afterward, another section of the dam face collapsed, court records said.
According to statements filed in connection with the lawsuit, all Department of Safety of Dams officials believed that the dam had failed. In order to protect the public, the remaining water had to be removed and the dam destroyed as soon as was feasible, the officials said.
"Another heavy rain could quickly refill the reservoir, resulting in collapse of the dam and downstream flooding," the statement said.
About 1,400 residents were told to leave their homes for four days while the lake, constructed from 1925 to 1929, was drained.
Jerrold A. Fadem, the attorney representing Sinaloa Lake Owners Assn., said the draining of the lake was completed March 9.
"On March 11, when there was no water, the state came in and destroyed the dam," he said.
Attorney Norman Peek, who represents the six state employees who worked on the dam drainage, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Previous Problems Cited
But, in papers filed in U.S. District Court, the Department of Safety of Dams stated that, once the heavy rains began eroding the dam, department personnel "acted in good faith in the belief that an emergency existed and exercised their professional judgment in making decisions."
In addition, Peek and other lawyers representing department officials stated in court papers that, when the dam was periodically inspected, department employees noted such problems as "questionable outlet construction and operation problems, embankment compaction and stability, excessive seepage, dense vegetation growing on the dam surface and obstructions in the spillway."
Residents claim that water was drained from the dam unnecessarily.
'No Imminent Danger'
"There was no imminent danger or threat to anybody," Fadem said. He said the slides in the dam were not significant in comparison to its size.
Further, residents maintain that the dam was regularly inspected by the state and that repairs were made according to officials' requests.
The homeowners asserted in court papers that the City of Simi Valley was responsible for maintaining a pressurized-water pipe at the crest of the dam.
"You don't put a pressured-water line in an earthen dam, especially a high-pressured-water pipe," Fadem said. "We believe that those slides that occurred on the face of the dam were the results of leaks from the water pipe."
The group stated in court papers that it had "adequately responded to the concerns of the Division of Safety of Dams throughout the years and that the dam was certified each and every year as safe."
Homeowners said they cleaned up around the dam. They installed a fence, cleared out plant growth, repaired outlet valves and numerous other items, according to Fadem.
Property Values Declined
"The majority of the work done on the lake was done by members of the association under the supervision of the Department of Safety of Dams," Hodson said.
According to one homeowner in the area, property values of the mansion-like homes of Sinaloa residents has declined because of the destruction of the lake.
As for Ventura County, officials said it "took part in the initial efforts to lower the lake because of their determination that the dam, containing the waters of the lake, created an emergency to the persons downstream of the Sinaloa dam." But they said "it was the State of California, not the County of Ventura, who breached the Sinaloa dam."
"No damage . . . occurred as a result of that reduction of the lake's waters," the statement filed by Ventura County asserted.
According to Fadem, the homeowners are "waiting to hear from the judge as to when the case will go to trial." Fadem said that, if the homeowners win their lawsuit, the $4 million will be used in part to reconstruct the dam and fill the lake.
The case, which was filed in 1983, was scheduled for June 17. However, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie is said to be considering switching the case to state court.
Fadem said the homeowners filed the suit in federal court because they felt it was a violation of civil rights, which would take the issue into the federal arena, and because "when you're suing the County of Ventura, if you have a choice, you don't want to be in a County of Ventura courtroom."