Raising legal questions and the ire of area residents, the cash-strapped Casitas Municipal Water District is pushing to build a 300-acre recreation area on the federally protected watershed it manages.
The proposal, subject to approval by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, includes plans for a 27-hole golf course, an equestrian center with 30 horses and two dozen rental cottages to be built on the Teague Memorial Watershed, situated just north of Lake Casitas near Ojai.
The 3,100-acre watershed is owned by the bureau and managed by the district, which is mandated to ensure its water quality. The Teague watershed supplies drinking-quality water to Lake Casitas.
Although residents who were forced off the property in the 1970s by eminent domain laws say they feel betrayed by the possibility of a large recreation area being built on their former property, district officials say budget constraints have forced them to seek any alternative that avoids rate hikes or staff layoffs.
"We are in a position where we have to look into any number of things," district General Manager John Johnson said, referring to a potential $1-million budget shortfall. "During the drought, we were fine financially. The concern was water. It was when it started to rain that the financial problems started."
But federal officials, who have announced their intention to study the watershed later this year, are not convinced the district can maintain high water standards with a development in the watershed.
"They are obligated to have the land remain in its natural state," said Jerry Alendal, chief of Land Acquisitions and Management in the bureau's Sacramento office. "We have some serious concerns about whether you can have a development and still protect water quality."
But Gerald Barney, who heads the recreation management group that made the proposal, said the watershed would have "zero pollution due to the development" based on environmental impact studies his group commissioned.
Barney said pesticides and fertilizers used on the golf course would be biodegradable and that animal and human waste would be hauled out in trucks. Additionally, a third party would monitor discharges into the watershed, Barney said.
"It will cost more to do it that way, but that's the price of doing business," Barney said.
Such assurances, however, have not mollified residents who were forced to sell their property after the watershed was approved by Congress in 1975.
"If they OK this thing, we should be able to buy back our property," said Helen Stroh, who has lived on an acre of land in the watershed since 1964.
Other residents of the watershed say both the federal government and the water district have ignored them.
"They should talk with us before they talk to the public," said W. K. Mungo, who has owned five acres in the watershed since 1954, five years before the lake was completed.
"There aren't many of us left," Mungo added. "We could all fit in a living room . . . but I guess that's why they haven't talked to us."
Alendal, however, said the bureau has not forgotten Teague's residents. "We have a real concern that this idea is different than what we were telling them we would do when we bought it," Alendal said. "That is an issue that will certainly be taken into account."
Meanwhile, the water district, which has been beset by low water sales and state funding cuts, is pushing on with the proposal.
On Wednesday, the district will hold a public hearing on the plan. And Johnson has drafted a letter in favor of the proposal to the bureau. Also, Johnson has made two trips to the bureau's Sacramento office during the past three months.
But according to an analysis commissioned by Barney, it might be worth the effort: The district is expected to receive as much as $500,000 annually five years after the project is completed.
"If they can get this through, it could solve one of their big problems," Alendal said, referring to the district's projected shortfall. "And you can't fault them for trying."
And despite criticisms about the plan, Barney remains optimistic.
"We've made a good faith proposal," he said. "I have no reason to think something can't be worked out."