Lake Casitas May Be Going With the Flow : Recreation: Source of half of Ventura County’s water supply, it may soon fill economic need as well.


Linda Cotten and her son Nathan, emigres from Northern California, arrived at Lake Casitas in anticipation of their first canoe trip on a Southern California lake. Instead, they were told to take a hike.

“We were shocked,” she said. “I just can’t believe canoes are banned.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 05, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 5, 1991 South Bay Edition Sports Part C Page 11 Column 1 Zones Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Recreation--A headline in Sunday’s South Bay Sports incorrectly identified Lake Casitas in Ventura County as Lake Castaic.

So are kayaks, rafts, hydro-hulls, jet skis, water skis and swimmers. At Lake Casitas--a 2,700-acre reservoir in northern Ventura County--you can fish, sail and race a powerboat on the water. You can camp near the water. You can even drink the water. But you can’t touch the water.

“No bodily contact is allowed,” said Doug Ralph, who manages the lake for the Casitas Municipal Water District.


Canoes can tip over, spilling the occupants and their germs into what is essentially drinking water for half of Ventura County. A terminal reservoir, Casitas has no filtration treatment plant between it and your morning coffee, so lake officials have had to impose tough restrictions on recreation to maintain the purity of the water, frustrating many potential users.

“Everybody would like to use the lake,” said Tom Erickson, an owner of a kayak-rental business.

The possibility exists, however, that everybody will be able to partake of the waters within the next three or four years. The California Department of Health has ordered the water district to build a filtration plant. According to a spokesman for the district, the facility could be on line by the middle of 1994, eliminating concern about human bacteria and opening the lake up to new recreational uses.

The district’s five-member board of directors will first have to agree to lift or loosen the current restrictions and then get state approval. It’s too early to tell what the chances are of opening up the lake to wider usage, but Ralph said the district might not have much of a choice.


“We can’t solely rely on fishing and camping to keep us financially sound,” he said.

Opened for recreation in 1959, the man-made lake reached its one-year attendance peak of 1.75 million visitors in the late 1970s. But last year only about 700,000 used the facilities. Ralph blames the recession and the drought: Once 200 feet deep, the lake has lost nearly 50 feet in depth, shrinking the shoreline and exposing the hitherto aptly named Sunken Island.

Adding new recreational opportunities no doubt will make the lake more attractive and draw more people--and protests. When Coyote and Santa Ana creeks were dammed in 1952, environmental activism was virtually nonexistent--Ralph said there was no opposition to the earthen dam, even though the forest was clear-cut below the water line. But today it’s impossible to disturb a tumbleweed without infuriating somebody.

And Casitas happens to be in a particularly sensitive area, an environmental hotbed. It borders the Los Padres Forest, home to Sespe Creek, which is currently the subject of a debate between those who want to preserve it and those who want to retain the possibility of building dams.


Opposition to expanded recreation at Casitas also will come from slow- and no-growth advocates in the influential Ojai area, through which passes California 33, the main road to Casitas.

“On the weekends, the traffic on 33 is already bad because of people pulling boats,” said Pat Baggerly, a board member of the Environmental Coalition and a resident of Meiners Oaks. “This has to be looked at very closely. An environmental-impact report has to be done. We don’t want Casitas turning into a Castaic,” she added, referring to the overcrowded lake near Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.

Ann Davis of Mira Monte lives less than two miles from Casitas and strongly opposes changing the laid-back quality of the lake.

“We don’t want all those people from L.A. coming up here to swim,” she said.


But Ralph doesn’t see any problems with adding sports at Casitas. At five miles long, “The lake is big enough for multiuse,” he said.

Even before the filtration plant is built, Ralph plans to enhance recreation at Casitas. In January, a new computer system will begin taking reservations for the 450 campsites at the lake. If a proposed policy goes into effect, campers will have their choice of sites in a noisy zone or a quiet zone, Ralph said.

This winter, the water district also will begin developing a master plan to utilize more of the 6,000 acres that have been set aside for recreation (only 300 are currently open to the public). A possibility is allowing camping and hiking on the lake’s wooded Main Island, Ralph says.

Regardless of its future policies, Casitas, glistening below the Topatopa Mountains, is likely to remain an idyllic retreat for boaters and fishermen.


“I just like being here even if I don’t catch fish,” said Jim Ruiz of Santa Barbara, stepping out of a rental rowboat. “But I always catch fish.”

Despite the drought, Ralph says, crappie are filling up stringers and largemouth bass have been extremely cooperative--Casitas once had the world-record catch, a 21-pounder.

Sailboats, even though they’re prone to capsizing, still are permitted at Casitas, but the lake is far from being a hospitable sailing environment. Like most mountain lakes, Casitas suffers from either too much wind or not enough. Of the 43,000 one-day boat trips on the lake last year, “not a whole lot” were in sailboats, Ralph said.

Water district ordinance 88-5, which prohibits bodily contact with the lake, has been waived only once. In 1984, the International Olympic Committee obtained a special variance to permit Olympic canoeing events to be held on Casitas. Nobody in Ventura County caught a strange disease, which makes some people wonder if the water district has been overly restrictive.


“They don’t seem to mind oil from motorboats and worms from fishermen getting into the water,” said Cotten, who lives in Mira Monte.

Contaminants do get into the lake, Ralph says, but they’re different from human bacteria. Petroleum products, for example, find their way to one of several levels in the lake. Water district equipment determines the cleanest level and delivers that water to the public. But human bacteria--which can cause, among other diseases--cholera and diphtheria--permeates all levels, Ralph says.