The drought reveals hidden history at the bottom of Lake Casitas

After five years of drought, Lake Casitas, a main water source for cities like Ventura and Ojai, has dropped to its lowest point since it was filled in the 1960s.

So low, in fact, that the reservoir is revealing old foundations that have been sitting underwater for over 50 years. Some people have come back to relive their childhoods.

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David Hartman spent days digging out the back steps of his old school. Photo: Larry Perel

David Hartman, 82, was in 6th grade the last time he saw the steps to the Santa Ana School, where he was a student. It had been underwater for about 60 years. 

“I wouldn’t have seen them without the drought, and I’ll probably never see them again if it fills up,” he said. Hartman, like others from this valley has been digging around the bottom of the lake to see what he can find. 

Hartman met his wife, Shirley, in this valley. Her home was just up the road from the school. Its foundation was also underwater until this year.

“This is where David and I dated from,” she said, standing where her front door once was. “He would pick me up here. It holds a lot of memories, this valley does for us.”

The reservoir was first built in a low-lying area 25 miles east of Santa Barbara during a drought period in the 1950s. At that time Ventura was just beginning to grow, and Ojai was still a tiny agricultural village. A reservoir meant more people could move here.

Roger Haley remembers the time well. He and his family were ranchers. Their home, Rancho Casitas, sat on what is now Lake Casitas.

He remembers the day they had to move their 500 head of cattle off the property in 1957 after agreements were finalized to upend the community in favor of creating a reservoir.  “I was on the last horse drive. As a little boy I was brought up the canyon, and we had them all head and tailed. My family had been there and been involved in that ranch since the 1880s.  All of a sudden, you wake up. They’re really serious. It’s over.”

But, Haley continues, if not for this lake as an emergency source of water, farmers and residents in the Ojai Valley would have to pack up and leave. Over 70,000 customers in Ventura county rely on the lake, which is now 40 percent full.

“Seeing it go down is very daunting,” said Steve Wickstrum, General Manager of the Lake Casitas Municipal Water District. “We’ve had a healthy lake, a near full lake for the last 20 years and, but it is working as it was designed.”

Wickstrum has considered tapping into the State Water Project or building a desalination plant. But right now, he’s holding on to the fact that Lake Casitas is doing what it was built to do – provide water during a critical, 20-year drought. He just hopes the next 10 years won’t be quite so dry.

Meanwhile, David and Shirley’s daughter, Kathy Clark, is standing at the bottom of the lake, next to her dad’s old schoolhouse, with a shovel.

“We’re hoping and praying that we will never see these steps here, and there’s nothing we can do about the drought but pray, but while the water’s receded it’s been really fun to see my mom and dad’s history.”