Thursday, January 10, 2008

Threat Of Lake Closure Looms

Casitas board holds special meeting about invader species and threat to bass, boating

By Daryl Kelley
Despite the concerns of dozens of fishermen, Casitas Municipal Water District directors pledged Wednesday to do everything possible to protect the Ojai Valley’s drinking water supply, leaving open the possibility of closing Lake Casitas altogether.
At a special meeting called to address the urgency of the threat of lake infestation by a damaging mussel, fishermen packed board chambers to vow cooperation, but also to warn Casitas directors of the economic consequences of closing one of the nation’s top bass fisheries.
“When there’s talk that one of the best bass lakes in the country is going to potentially be shut down, you have everybody’s attention,” said Ron Cervenka, director of a series of bass tournaments set for the lake this year. “The economic impact of such a closure … would be devastating.”
After two hours of discussion, directors of the Oak View-based water district spoke with two minds — saying they don’t want to close the lake, but that their primary responsibility is to the 70,000 people in the Ojai Valley and Ventura who depend on their huge reservoir for water.
Director Bill Hicks said that the Ventura River watershed is the only area in Southern California that cannot count on imported water if local supplies are contaminated or run short,because this valley depends exclusively on rain to fill its reservoirs and groundwater basins.
“There’s got to be a solution to this,” Hicks said. “But until there is, we’ve got to be extremely careful. We’re not doing this to be jerks; we have to protect our water supply.”
The alien quagga mussel discovered in Lake Mead and Lake Havasu a year ago could ravage the reservoir’s ecosystem and clog its waterworks, much as it already has in the Great Lakes after migrating on ships from the Ukraine in the 1980s. The mussel, and its zebra mussel cousin, have caused billions of dollars worth of damage there.
And now it has spread from Lake Mead through the huge distribution system of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to seven lakes in San Diego and Riverside counties.
Metropolitan Water has begun a $5.6-million chlorination program to try to control the mussel spread, but officials said it is not clear whether the mussel can be controlled. Once in a lake, it cannot be eradicated since a single female can produce a million offspring a year, they said.
Although Lake Casitas is not tied to that larger regional system, local officials said the mussel could be spread by fishing boats that regularly go from lake to lake.
On Wednesday, the board vowed to continue to research alternatives to lake closure, including storing more boats at the lake for exclusive use there and purchase of a $300,000 boat-cleaning station. But directors made no promises about what might come when they discuss the issue again in early February.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of closing the lake, personally,” said Director Richard Handley. “But it’s really critical for us to make the right decision. Our primary responsibility is to the water users.”
Director Pete Kaiser said he wanted to focus first on educating the public about not bringing infected boats to the lake, inspecting boats to make sure they have no mussels hidden in their bilges and eradication of the mussel with hot-water cleaning stations.
“This is a problem that’s going to be with us for quite a while,” he said. He suggested that Casitas staffers continue to work with state Department of Fish and Game experts on how to control the spread of the pernicious quagga.
Board President Jim Word also stressed that cleaning stations might be set up and that boat storage yards could be expanded, while excluding boats from outside.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said, “but it may be a partial solution.”
A fifth board member, Russ Baggerly, who alerted the board to the quagga threat issue last fall, was at a water conference Wednesday. But he has previously raised the possibility of closing the lake to outside boats.
The message from fishermen Wednesday, however, was that they are not the problem.
“Make this decision based on information and facts rather than misinformation and hysteria,” Cervenka said. “It is not bass fishermen who are a serious threat … I can guarantee you, you are not going to find boats much cleaner than at bass fishing tournaments.”
State Fish and Game expert Mike Giusti also cautioned against closure. He praised the Casitas board for quickly addressing a serious issue, but he said a number of actions could be taken short of closure. The state is implementing a computerized tracking system, he said, so lake operators will know which boats have been in infested lakes.
In an emergency action last fall, Casitas had already implemented detailed inspections of all 26,000 boats that enter the lake each year.
Casitas staffers recommended that the issue be tabled until more research is done, citing a direct loss to the Casitas Recreation Area of $695,000 a year out of a budget of about $3 million. Hotels, restaurants and stores in the surrounding community would also take a hit, they said.
“It would be a serious public relations issue,” said Brian Roney, manager of the lake’s recreation area. “We’ve been flooded with phone calls.”
Several members of the audience urged the board to consider closing the lake before it’s too late.
Chuck Montag of Ojai said he fished Lake Casitas the first day it opened five decades ago and has taught his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren how to catch bass there.
“But it’s very important that we protect it,” he said. “If a catastrophe like this happens here, we don’t have any other water.”
Veteran Ventura fisherman Dennis Harper urged strong board action, citing the state of Oregon’s passivity in the face of a New Zealand mud snail infestation over the last two years. The snail has now spread to California and has been discovered in Piru Creek, he said.
“I personally would support a moratorium on access to the lake until you get a good handle on this,” said Harper, vice president of Sespe Fly Fishers.
However, Scott Sweet, vice president of California Bass Federation, said anglers are working overtime to educate those who fish at the lake to the threat of tiny “hitchhiking” mussels that hide in wet boats and among vegetation stuck to them.
He’s distributing stickers at tackle and boat shops saying, “Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers,” he said. Boat owners know to clean and dry their boats after use, he said.
“We’re really going to push this clean-and-dry (campaign),” he said. “That’s really the key. We as a fishing community are aware of this … We are educating everybody.”
Lake Casitas is a popular fishing spot because it produces such big fish, including a 22-pounder that was the second largest ever caught when it was taken in 1980.
Meanwhile, Casitas officials are continuing their campaign to enlist the support of state and federal officials in the fight against the invasive mussel, district general manager Steve Wickstrum said.
They’ve met with a variety of elected officials, who’ve offered to help, he said. But he said very little money is available to attack the problem.
Casitas has sought help from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees many western lakes and owns the Lake Casitas dam and reservoir, Wickstrum said. And he said he’s trying to get funds for decontamination units, hot-water sprays and chemicals, from the state.
For more information on the quagga mussel response, visit the DFG Web site at
A public toll-free number, (866) 440-9530, has been established for boaters and anyone involved with activities on lakes and rivers seeking information on the mussels.


Anonymous said...

Another great article by Daryl Kelley. The Ojai Valley News has long had great writers, above and beyond what you would expect from a small town newspaper, but the addition of Mr. Kelley, Sondra Murphy and Nao Braverman really make it a gem. The valley is lucky to have such high-class journalism as their source of connection with their their neighbors. Keep it up!

Painted Hand Farm said...

A safe drinking supply versus a good fishing spot? Although I'm an avid angler, this is a no-brainer which of course means that Casitas will side with the fishermen. After all, it's only the Valley's water supply.

Anonymous said...

A question for the reporter...will the boat rental concession at the lake be shut down? If the boat never leaves the lake, seems like one should be able to rent a boat and fish.