In a region where steep hills and flashy rivers make flooding a relatively common occurrence, a few floods stand out as the most dramatic, damaging and deadly in Ventura County history.
Flooding is the natural system’s means of flushing out the channels, clearing away brush, sediment and debris to the ocean, scouring the river bottoms to make way for new growth.
The most recent floods, in 1992, provided a perfect example of the system at work, said Mark H. Capelli, a lecturer in coastal systems at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the executive director of Friends of the Ventura River.
“We saw Mother Nature making and remaking wetlands and creating a delta,” he said about the Ventura River, which swept across the broad expanse of its historical path to re-create a second river mouth on Feb. 12. “We were witness to a tremendous physical process.”
But it’s when humans get too close, with bridges built too low or roads and houses too near, that trouble--and tragedy--occurs.
During the floods of 1992, the storm that struck Feb. 12 followed a week of back-to-back storms, which had already saturated the entire 226 miles of the Ventura River’s watershed.
The river filled its flood plain, rampaged down new channels and inundated a homeless encampment beneath the Main Street bridge. It also washed out the Ventura RV Beach Resort in a channel leading to the river’s second mouth, destroying or damaging dozens of the mobile home park’s vehicles.
As sheriff’s rescue helicopters hovered over the lower two miles of the Ventura River, deputies plucked frightened homeless people and campers from islands surrounded by the raging muddy waters.
But one homeless man could not be saved. He was swept down the river to his death, his body later recovered and identified by the man with whom he shared a lean-to on the river bottom.
And three others living just north of Ventura were killed during the night when a mountain of mud slammed through a couple’s bedroom wall, suffocating them and killing their near-term unborn child as they slept.
But despite the deaths and damage from the 1992 flood, it was the flood of 1978 that still claims the record for sending a torrent of water and debris coursing down the Ventura River at greater volume than has been recorded before or since.
In that storm, water was flowing at a rate of 63,600 cubic feet per second--the equivalent of 63,000 fire hydrants gushing full-force at the same time.
It was classified as a 50-year event, or one that has occurred on average only once every 50 years. By contrast, the 1992 flood waters were measured at 47,600 cubic feet per second, a 20-year event.
Although its waters were the fastest, the storm of 1978 was neither the most damaging or deadly as other major storms.
Dolores Taylor, division engineer for the Ventura County Flood Control Department, said, “The great floods of 1969" caused the most property damage in the county.
The ground became saturated by heavy rain during January storms, followed by another eight days from Feb. 6 to Feb. 16. Then came another front on Feb. 22 that did not let up until the 26th--92 straight hours of rain.
During that storm, the Ventura River took out chunks of roads and bridges and the San Antonio Creek ripped out the railroad bridge. The Santa Clara River flooded the Ventura Harbor and the city’s sewage treatment plant, causing millions of dollars in damage.
The north fork of Matilija Creek destroyed a large section of California 33 four miles north of Ojai when the creek swelled over the top of its banks. Entire residences were destroyed when the San Antonio Creek took a new course. And one woman, who was believed to have been seeking safety atop a roof, was swept down the river to her death, though her body was never found.
“That creek can build a dam out of debris and just rise around the houses,” said Marvin Hanson, a hydrographer with the county who has specialized in knowledge of San Antonio Creek. “I always wondered if we would ever find the body when I was digging around in the area afterward.
“Like the other rivers in this area, it’s dry during a drought and a torrent during a wet year,” Hanson said.
And in the storms of 1938, the whole state was pelted with one wet front after another. Although the largest storm that year was considered only a 10-year event, it prompted the 1944 creation of the county’s first flood control district and was part of the inspiration to build the Matilija Dam in 1948.
It also prompted the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers a decade later to build a major levee on the east side of the river from the mouth up 2.6 miles, eliminating flooding in the city of Ventura and the Ventura County Fairgrounds east of the river’s estuary.
In 1914, the Ventura River became so swift and swollen that it measured 25 to 30 feet deep and 200 feet wide at Canada Larga, according to newspaper accounts from Jan. 23 of that year.
But with as much damage and loss of life as those floods caused, Taylor of flood control said the Ventura River and its tributaries are capable of much worse.
“It’s always possible to have a larger storm,” she said. In fact, the Flood Control Department is planning for it.
“Most of our flood control work is now based on the 100-year event,” she said.
More flood control work is now planned to diminish damage when the next big storm arrives. A levy is planned at Live Oak Acres to keep the flow out of residences, Taylor said. The project is expected to be built this year.
The department is also studying the possibility of putting a levy at Casitas Springs to protect residents there.
Alex Sheydayi, manager of the Ventura County Flood Control District, said many of the houses and other developments now protected with flood control work should never have been built in the first place.
That includes the Ventura RV park, which Sheydayi opposed before it was built in 1987.
“Flooding is a natural event,” Sheydayi said. “We only have damage from flooding because man has encroached in the flood plain. The best flood control is to control development in the flood plain.”