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Testing the Waters : Lake Casitas Officials Study Opening World-Class Fishery to Swimming, Other Sports

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 35 years of restricting Lake Casitas primarily to bass and trout fishing, the lake’s directors are considering opening its tranquil waters to swimming, windsurfing, water-skiing, jet-skiing and even speedboat racing.

Directors of the Casitas Municipal Water District, which manages the lake as a drinking-water reservoir for customers in Ventura and Ojai, have begun exploring the lake’s potential after a water purification plant becomes operational next summer.

“I’m in favor of opening the lake to a full range of water activities,” said Mike Frees, one of Casitas’ five directors. “I would like to see that the people who are paying taxes on the dam get full benefit of it.”

Frees favors proceeding cautiously, perhaps making the lake available to canoeists and kayakers--and if that seems to work out, then roping off a small area as a swimming beach.

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Other Casitas directors have also expressed interest in allowing some body-contact sports on the 1,300-acre lake, wedged in the hills between Ojai and Ventura.

But they have yet to take up serious discussions of changes that could turn Ventura County’s largest lake into a freshwater haven for people who want to paddle, sail or just get wet.

Casitas directors may meet some resistance from bass fishermen and perhaps local environmentalists.

“Lake Casitas is a world-class bass fishery, and we want to keep it that way,” said Walter Stowe, an avid fisherman. He recently formed the Lake Casitas Preservation Society to safeguard the pristine waters and prize lunkers that get featured in fishing magazines.

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Stowe fears that opening a swimming beach will ultimately unleash a deluge of other activities, such as water-ski boats that will disrupt fishing.

“It is going to snowball and turn into a marine park,” he said. “Why don’t we put in submarine rides?”

Casitas officials stress that no decision has been made and that it will be at least two years before any changes can take place. They expect to hold a public workshop soon so the directors can weigh all of the issues and competing interests.

“If the decision is made to have body-contact sports, we’d like to bring all the sides together and find a way to let them live peaceably,” said John Johnson, the district’s general manager.

Historically, such new recreational activities have not been an issue for the lake that began filling in 1959 because it has not had a water purification plant, which is needed to remove bacteria and other possible contaminants generated by humans.

Trickling down from the Los Padres National Forest, the water has been so pure that it has not needed filtering before being shipped to farmers and 60,000 residents in the Ojai Valley, west Ventura and beachfront communities that stretch up the coast to the Rincon.

But with ever-tightening rules, the state Department of Health Services required that the district build a filtration plant.

Construction crews are now digging the holes for the foundation of the $8.7-million plant that will force water bills to edge up over the next decade. The plant is scheduled to begin operating July 1, 1996.

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A state health official recently informed Johnson that any body-contact sports on the lake cannot begin until July, 1997, when the district has completed a year’s worth of tests that the lake meets state standards.

To win approval from state health authorities, Casitas also will have to show that the lake’s purity will not deteriorate from new activities.

Casitas officials are also trying to determine if they need to change state law to deviate from the lake’s historic use.

During the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Casitas allowed teams from around the world to use the lake in rowing competitions.

But for the most part, the lake has been restricted to fishing from shore and on wide, stable boats that are not likely to dump their occupants into the water. Anglers are encouraged to make use of chemical toilets on a floating barge named the SS Relief.

Johnson said Casitas officials have tried to minimize car traffic and smog in the Oakview-Ojai area by keeping a lid on the number of visitors the lake attracts each year.

Even if the recreational policy changes, he expects the district to try to maintain attendance at 850,000 visitor-days a year, about 25% less than the peak in 1986.

Yet Frees said he expects heightened interest in the lake if people are allowed to swim or sail or ski.

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“I just spent three days at the [county] fairgrounds manning the Casitas booth,” Frees said. “Just about every other person coming to the booth was saying, ‘Is the rumor true that you are going to allow swimming in the lake?’ ”


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