Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Casitas, Feds Seek Common Ground

Feds signal that move to open lake for water skiing, other sports unlikely

By Daryl Kelley
Confronted with concerns about expanding recreation in and around Lake Casitas, federal officials assured Ojai Valley residents at a recent meeting that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s goal is to protect the local environment, not degrade it.
Officials of the local Casitas Municipal Water District, which manages the lake, said after the meeting that they were encouraged by what they hope may be a new era of cooperation with federal officials.
“It was positive,” said water district general manager Steve Wickstrum.
And Russ Baggerly, a Casitas board member, said this week: “I think we saw a change in their attitude.”
About 50 people appeared at an Oak View public workshop last Thursday evening to ask that the bureau do nothing that would further clog roadways, pollute valley air or diminish the quality of drinking water from Lake Casitas.
The bureau’s Robert Epperson, federal manager of the U.S.-owned Lake Casitas waterworks and watershed project, told residents that a new recreation plan is designed to accommodate new federal law, and not to turn the Casitas Recreation Area into a bustling urban preserve.
“There are some things that have to be updated,” Epperson said.
But federal officials are not wedded to new recreational options — such as water skiing, horseback riding and bicycling — listed as possible uses for the lake area and 3,500 acres owned by the bureau north of the lake, he said.
And, in an interview after the meeting, Epperson said he takes seriously complaints he heard Thursday evening, and in an earlier meeting with Casitas district officials.
The Casitas district manages the federally owned project, and Casitas officials have been sharply critical of the new plan.
“Based on comments here, I would say half to two-thirds of what’s being discussed would be dropped,” Epperson told the Ojai Valley News. “That’s why we’re having this meeting tonight, to hear what the community thinks.”
For example, Epperson said water skiing at Lake Casitas was raised as an alternative because he received more than 100 e-mails in support of that option after a hearing in 2006. No water skiers showed up Thursday to support that option, however, while several speakers opposed water skiing.
New information from state health officials also indicates that a multimillion-dollar expansion to the lake’s new water treatment plant might be required if Casitas were to open the lake to swimming and water skiing.
“The state Department of Health Services now says the (existing) water treatment plant might not be adequate, depending on the number of people who swim in the lake,” Epperson said. “And if there’s no funding for expansion, (water skiing) just doesn’t happen.”
Underlying all discussions of the new recreation plan is a history of conflict between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Casitas district.
Casitas has spent more than $500,000 on a lawsuit that seeks reimbursement of about $9 million that the Bureau of Reclamation required the district to spend to help restore the Ventura River run of the endangered steelhead trout.
And in 2003, the bureau issued a cease-and-desist order, prohibiting Casitas from making any more changes at the recreation area after Casitas built its popular, money-making water park without federal approval. Construction of the park sparked a legal challenge by environmental groups.
Then, at a special meeting two weeks ago, Casitas officials voted to spend $25,000 to have legal and environmental experts review the new recreation plan after board members said they thought it might be a power grab that violates law and Casitas’ contracts with the bureau.
But after the meeting last week, Director Baggerly said he thinks relations with the bureau may have turned a corner. He, Wickstrum and director Pete Kaiser also met with Epperson privately Thursday morning.
“I said what we ought to do is lock the doors and talk this out and get rid of old baggage,” Baggerly said. “And their response was, ‘That’s what we’re doing here, right?’”
Epperson said in an interview that the bureau’s relationship with Casitas and former general manager John Johnson was “contentious.” Building the water park without consulting federal officials was a particular problem, he said.
“But things have changed a lot with (new management), and for the better,” Epperson said.
“I think we’ll be able to work together and be friends as they see we’re working toward the same goals.”
Kaiser, however, said he was still skeptical. He questioned why the bureau was rushing its new recreation plan through, with a Sept. 25 deadline for public comment.
“They’re trying to roughshod this through as quickly as possible,” he said. “Who is going to pay for all of these expansions in recreation?”
Of particular concern to the Casitas board is the bureau’s apparent plan to turn over management of the 3,500-acre Teague Watershed area north of Lake Casitas to the U.S. Forest Service, rather than leaving it under control of the Casitas board.
The watershed, purchased by an act of Congress in the 1970s, was intended to be left as open space once a handful of residents who lived there had died. Only two such residents remain.
But under the new plan, the U.S. Forest Service would have a station there and camping and horseback riding might be allowed. Casitas officials said they think such activities could pollute the lake with toxic runoff.
But after meeting with Epperson, Wickstrum and Baggerly said there might be some advantage in Casitas managing the watershed along with the Forest Service.
The Forest Service’s presence would enhance law enforcement in the area, they said.
That federal agency’s presence would also acknowledge the reality of the current situation — that Casitas does not have the manpower to patrol the watershed. Over the years, that allowed so much illegal dumping along rural roads in the area, that the federal bureau had to haul away 25 truckloads of trash a few years ago, Epperson said.
“So since 2006, we’ve had a memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service,” he said. “We’ve asked them to help us control that area.”
The new recreation plan would allow the Forest Service to build a new station in the watershed to replace one now located at a sharp curve on state Highway 150 on Coyote Creek.
Epperson said the new station would be about the same size as the old one, would have a new septic system and would be a mile or two from the lake, so floods like those in 1998 would not flush sewage into the lake.
Baggerly acknowledged that Casitas had done a poor job of managing the Teague Watershed, because of a lack of money and manpower.
“That’s really true, and I apologize for that,” he said.
But Casitas should remain a part of any management team for the watershed, he said. “Casitas doesn’t want to be cut out of the picture,” he said. And he said the new Forest Service station should be located south of Highway 150, not in the area the bureau proposes.
Epperson said the bureau will accommodate Casitas, and has already agreed to extend the agency’s comment period on the new plan to Oct. 10.
Of the public comments at Thursday’s hearing, those of longtime Oak View resident Barbara Cunningham were typical. She said families who’d lived in the Teague Watershed for generations had been forced out by federal officials to maintain lake purity.
But now, she said, the same agency is proposing opening up the watershed and expanding recreation.
“It simply means more traffic, more air pollution,” she said. “That’s the lake that provides our drinking water. And I don’t want to see water skiers in my drinking water.”
The Bureau of Reclamation’s draft Lake Casitas Resource Management Plan and its related environment statement are available for public review here. E-mail the BLM project manager at repperson@mp.usbr.gov for questions or comments.
The comment period ends Sept. 25.


Anonymous said...

(But under the new plan, the U.S. Forest Service would have a station there and camping and horseback riding might be allowed. Casitas officials said they think such activities could pollute the lake with toxic runoff.)

Ok, correct me if I read this wrong, but Casitas Water is worried about toxic runoff from camping & horseback riding, but they're not concerned with the human waste that will end up in our drinking water if they allow skiing? Because someone, some where along the way will relieve themself in the lake. Unfortunately it happens.
People aren't supposed to be in the lake now, but they are and the rangers are never around to tell them to get out.

Anonymous said...

They will say anything to keep people out. What about the run off from the wildlife that lives there now? Maybe they should kill all the animals that live there now. And you are right I see fisherman pissing off their boats all the time.

Anonymous said...

There are also people who take their dogs to swim in the lake all the time, so next they'll be banning all dogs,,,but people will still be able to ski and kayak.

Micki said...

Keep it simple! Start with swimming only, charge for it, designate the area, monitor the outcome, and by all means have some good old fashioned fun!

Anonymous said...

Fish poop and die in the water. And the water is treated before it comes out of your tap. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

The last thing we need is for Highway 33 to crawl at a snail's pace when all of Oxnard decides its time to go bang gang and swim at the lake.