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 southern California that holds the most lucrative farmland in the state


The Water Innovators | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Winter 2017

Roger Haley’s family lost a portion of their land when Lake Casitas was created to provide water to the city of Ventura and surrounding farmlands. “The 'Original Take,' I call it,” Haley says, as he pours over photographs of life before the deluge. “We lost 4,400 acres for that lake.” Photo 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 Southern 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 Tehatchapi 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.

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