The California Mirage
The blind spots in the American West’s approach to managing water are on full display in Ventura County, a coastal region of Central California that holds the most lucrative farmland in the state.
By CRAWFORD COATES
Roger Haley grew up at the bottom of Lake Casitas. “It was one of the most beautiful locations in the county. Just magnificent,” he says. “We have a lot of the newcomers to the Ojai Valley, they have no idea. They think that what they see [in this lake] is all that’s good and natural. And they just have no idea.”
The lake Haley is describing is a bowl of land that, a half century ago, became a giant, man-made bucket to serve Ventura, a Central California coastal community midway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Given the peculiarities of the region’s geography, Ventura can be seen as an instructive microcosm. Its shape and natural systems are similar to California as a whole—a mirror on a smaller scale of the state’s massive Sierra Nevada mountain range, which wraps around and waters the fertile alluvial plain of the Central Valley. In Ventura, however, it’s the Coast Range and Tehachapi mountains that shed water down three rivers through the most productive farmland in California; and then plunge, if any water is left, toward the surfers on Ventura’s glorious beaches.
To make Ventura matters even more emblematic, consider this: California itself has become the primary fruit and vegetable garden for the rest of the U.S.—and, in the case of many commodities, for cities and towns well beyond our shores. That makes the fields in this little county some of the most valuable farmland in the world. So whatever happens to the water here—including each gallon in Lake Casitas—ripples in some fashion through the entire world’s economy.
Tree stumps and other remnants of Haley’s youth are faintly visible now in the lake’s muddy bottom. You can even see the light curlicues of old roads and the rock foundation of the Santa Ana schoolhouse.
In the midst of this landscape, Lake Casitas sits as an emblem of the state’s outsized, mid-20th-century agricultural audacity; and, at the same time, as a call to confront a new reality.
“The ‘Original Take,’ I call it,” Haley says. “We lost 4,400 acres for that lake there. My parents litigated with the bureau for something like six or eight years. Then they just threw in the towel.” The house he grew up in—a sprawling hacienda designed by renowned architect Wallace Neff, with adobe walls four-feet-thick, exposed beams, tiled and wooden floors, all of it open to views of the headwaters of creeks that would ultimately become the lake—was dynamited in 1956.
The sight of that reservoir today—just a stone’s throw from Haley’s current home—is jarring. Former high water marks are like forgotten memories. Haley’s cattle—corriente, a small breed brought to the New World from Spain, and better suited to drought than typical American beef cattle—stare down beneath heavy horns from their hillside pastures. Tree stumps and other remnants of Haley’s youth are faintly visible now in the lake’s muddy bottom. You can even see the light curlicues of old roads and the rock foundation of the Santa Ana schoolhouse.
“You want to know something sad?” says Haley. “I’ll tell you. We have 43,000 oak trees on our land. We have 4,000 on the ground right now and we’re going to lose about another 13,000. There are a few historic trees, trees we will preserve. Magnificent trees. But we can’t possibly save them all. We have one of the oldest sycamores in the valley, and I will water them if I can. But we’ve lost 23 already.”
Then, with a sudden boom in his voice, he says, “This is the driest it’s ever been!”
Lake Casitas, says Ron Merkling, public affairs and resource manager for the Casitas Municipal Water District, is “like a mini State Water Project.” He is referring, of course, to the famously ambitious system for water delivery that California launched back in 1960. In the words of then-Governor Edmond “Pat” Brown (father of California’s more recent governor, Jerry Brown), the project’s purpose was to “correct an accident of people and geography.” The idea was to bring water from Northern California rivers to the population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and the farms along the way.
The State Water Project (or SWP) was a titanic act of will as controversial as it was complex—a network of pump-stations, hydraulic power plants, reservoirs, dams, and 700 miles of aqueduct—promising to fulfill the state’s water needs for the next 75 years. When the project was launched, Lake Casitas was just four years old, full of all the hope and promise that are typical of the young. So its parents, the city of Ventura and neighboring agriculture interests, never joined the SWP delivery system.
After initially rising slowly during dry years, on March 31, 1978 the lake spilled over, achieving its full potential of 254,000 acre-feet of water. In the summer of 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics hosted canoeing and rowing events on a robustly blue Lake Casitas.
Eventually the multi-phase SWP, funded by an unprecedented $1.75 billion bond in 1960, was designed to deliver an astounding 4.2 million acre-feet of water across the state every year. But it never got close. Over time, the project averaged about half that, or 2.4 million acre-feet each year. One reason is that builders were blocked from tapping certain Northern California rivers, so much of the build-out went unrealized. Water is slippery business in California. This is especially true now. Given the state’s long-term drought, and the prospect that climate change might make drought a regular if not permanent fact of California life, much of the state’s water may not come from the SWP any more, but instead from a source that is essentially invisible.
“There it is,” says Haley, laying a worn finger on a family photo album. “Where I grew up, Casa Casitas.” The white stucco house stands out starkly against a spread of oaks, strewn like black wool across hillsides that go on forever. He turns the page: Spacious outbuildings and old-fashioned people. Turns the page: a patio room with a built-in cast-iron barbecue the size of a small car. He sighs: “There it was…”.
Today, Haley lives just a stone’s throw from the lake’s eastern shore. Despite all the lost land and family history, and with his well, as he puts it, “sucking sand,” he acknowledges that he has become completely dependent on Lake Casitas. “We’d be fucked without that lake. You and me and everybody else.”
Rainfall for the Ventura River Valley area is described in local reports as “highly fluctuating”—a model euphemism if there ever was one. While the area averages 14 inches a year, we see annual totals that range anywhere from 5 to 40 inches. The longest drought on record for the region began in 1944. Haley’s father, he says, “packed up the tent and the herd and left for where the water was.” Farmers, however, suffer in place. “The old timers in the valley all remember the drought of the 1940s,” says Emily Thatcher Ayala, a citrus grower and packer at Friends Ranch, whose family settled there in the 1870s. “No one had wells in the valley then. When the streams all finally dried up, my grandfather and great uncle dug what I believe was the first well here, all by hand. They watered with barrels and horses, tree by tree.”
Drought persisted into the post-war years. By this time—and in the space of less than a decade—farms and residents throughout the valley had become reliant on well water. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was on a dam-building tear across the 17 western states of its operation. In October of 1952, a group calling itself the Ventura River Municipal Water District, inspired by large federal dam projects in neighboring counties, coalesced to advocate for a local project of its own. The cornerstone was Lake Casitas; after a nearly unanimous vote of enthusiasm from county residents, the project was fast-tracked and broke ground on August 27, 1956. An 8-year-old Roger Haley was in school that day, and therefore did not see the blast of dynamite that brought his house down.
“The idea with Casitas was that it was drought-proof,” says Duane Georgeson, who started working with the Municipal Water Project in Los Angeles in 1959 and has worked as a water engineer and manager throughout the state. By the winter of 1958, the new basin for Casitas began to fill—thanks to channels uphill that were dug to divert water from the Ventura River. After initially rising slowly during dry years, on March 31, 1978, the lake spilled over, achieving its full potential of 254,000 acre-feet of water. In the summer of 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics hosted canoeing and rowing events on a robustly blue Lake Casitas.
Then, in the 1990s, drought returned to Southern California, forcing residents in nearby Santa Barbara to approve an SWP spur—under duress and at huge expense. Meanwhile, the city of Ventura was, as Georgeson puts it, “sitting pretty.” As recently as 2005, the lake has remained near capacity. It’s been in steady decline since.
In 2014, California finally passed regulations to protect groundwater across the state. But Ventura County has been regulating its groundwater since 1983, longer than any other community in the state. That this region’s wells are still suffering, despite a 33-year-old law designed to protect them, is not auspicious news.
This cannot be entirely blamed on the drought. As the city of Ventura, nearby towns, and surrounding farmers have all demanded more and more from the lake, the overall watershed has suffered the consequences. Today the lake sits 79 vertical feet below its high-water mark. Its fingers have turned to meadows. Former islands are hills. Competition for what remains has grown ugly. An environmental group has sued the California State Water Resources Control Board—and the city of Ventura—claiming that the board has allowed the city to irresponsibly overdraw the lake’s primary source: the Ventura River. The city in turn sued the agency managing Casitas, some upriver water districts, and hundreds of private well owners. (“The nuclear option,” one water board member called it.) The case awaits decision from the Superior Court of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Ventura residents, who are increasingly dependent on the lake as wells are depleted, are told that Casitas still offers four years’ capacity. But somehow these reassurances don’t provide their old solace. “Lake Casitas,” says Shana Epstein, general manager of the Ventura City Water Department, “is our most visible stress.”
“Food, cover, water—that’s the definition of habitat, and there’s no life without all three,” Haley tells me. He’s just returned from California Cattlemen’s Association meetings in Paso Robles, about 150 miles to the north. The focus was, of course, water, and he’s charged up with new worries, and new ideas. “There are all these tributaries, just like branches of a tree, that feed the aquifers. I’m going to tell you something and this is God’s truth: to understand the health of our water system look at the health of the live water. If there’s no live water, there’s no aquifer water.”
By live water, Haley means active, moving fresh water—capable of percolating into the ground, and thus into the aquifers that feed a farmer’s wells. “Never in my lifetime have I not seen some sort of surface water at Foster Park. And if you don’t have flow there, then you have no aquifer water and you have saltwater intrusion. This is a big deal.” He raises three fingers and counts them down: “Food, cover, water. Not saltwater.”
No wonder Haley is fired up. As new dams and reservoirs face increasing difficulties getting approved, and old lakes and reservoirs are filling up with sediment, or starving for rain that never comes, attention is looking for other sources for water. First on the list is groundwater, but the picture there isn’t great either.
“My wells are tired,” says Thatcher of Friends Ranch, “and they’re all I’ve got. My house, my worker’s houses, it’s all well water. If they run dry, we’re done.” As water expenses rise for agriculture, says Thatcher, wells have gone deeper. And as large agricultural lands have been divided and sold dependent on well water, there is greater extraction, less historical perspective, and less sense of common cause. In this, Ventura is not unique.
“In many places groundwater extraction is a race to the bottom,” says Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at U.C. Berkeley. Remarkably, California has long been one of the few Western states to not regulate its groundwater use statewide. To address this, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014 (54 years after his father created the California State Water Project). “SGMA is important because groundwater is what’s called a common-pool resource.” At this point, he says, “Everyone’s actions affect everyone else’s. Without regulation, there’s nothing to restrain over-pumping.”
While the law is sweeping in implication, it is vague regarding implementation, preferring instead to leave it to local entities that can benefit from local knowledge. To its credit, SGMA’s restrictions are relatively broad. (It prohibits the “significant and unreasonable” lowering of groundwater levels, reduction in groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, water quality degradation, land subsidence, and, most interestingly, impacts on beneficial uses of interconnected surface waters. Translation: rivers, streams, wetlands, and springs are all protected under SGMA.) This sounds great but consider this: Ventura County has been regulating its groundwater since 1983, longer than any other community in the state. That this region’s wells are still suffering, despite a 33-year-old law designed to protect them, is not auspicious news.
A major problem, Kiparsky says, is that few people understand how local aquifers work. “The role of data is hugely important to all of this. We need good information to understand the local aquifer in a technical sense.” In the Ventura River Valley alone there are more than 400 private wells and several municipal wells. Tributaries spread deep within the rugged mountains that feed them. While Ojai and the Ventura River are classified as distinct aquifers, they are in fact connected. How do managers handle the interplay? “There are 10,000 unanswered questions,” Kiparsky says.
In the meantime, at least one question—perhaps the most important one—can be answered. How do you refill an aquifer? By reviving the natural systems around it that have always fed it in the past. Peter Brand, who as a project manager for California’s State Coastal Conservancy worked on watershed restoration projects in Ventura for nearly two decades, puts it this way: “To save groundwater, you have to save rivers.”
In a time of dire drought, the work required to rescue rivers in Ventura—indeed throughout the West—is no small feat. (For a glimpse at what Brand and the SCC went through to save several Ventura County rivers, see our sidebar to the right, “The Long Road to Saving a Watershed.”) Thinking forward, in 2040, when SGMA compliance is finally required, I cannot foresee urban lawns remaining a fixture in Ventura. In order to keep saltwater in the estuaries around the mouths of our rivers where it belongs, strong water flows will be critical. That means maintaining a healthy and robust river, not the trickle I was able to find only with the help of a local environmentalist guide.
Lake Casitas was born in drought. It was designed for drought. The first years of its existence saw scant water accumulation. Then, all of a sudden, rain over the course of one week in 1962 brought the lake 53,000 acre-feet of new water. Deluge followed and by the end of the decade the lake filled significantly. For good and for ill, everyone is now hoping for a repeat performance. This may not be the wisest method of planning in an era of unprecedented climate change. “The crisis,” says Epstein of Ventura Water, “is that we only react in crisis.”
The Ventura River was once the backbone of this community’s watershed—and, as a sign of its strength, it offered a network of swimming and fishing holes and picnic sites. Right now that river is basically dry and the water at its mouth is saline. Spending a day on the river is an afterthought, if a thought at all. After all, who in Southern California swims in rivers and creeks any more?
“We used to swim in the creeks all the time,” says Roger Haley. “We had one called the Ten Foot because it was 10 feet deep and we’d jump off these big rocks beneath the sycamore there in the dead of summer.” Haley looks out the window of his truck, then points to one of the trees he will now try to save—by personally carrying water to it.