Ojai’s Shifting Waterscape: Past, Present, and Future History Springs Forth

IN LATE OCTOBER 2014, not long after returning to Ojai after living in the Los Angeles area for many years, I took a series of photographs documenting the Ojai Valley as it appeared relative to the Southern California drought.  I went to four locales within the Valley: Lake Casitas, the Ojai Meadows Preserve, the Ventura River Preserve,  and Upper Ojai. Through the camera lens I looked to capture signs and symptoms of drought within our habitat. Again this year at the end of October I set out to photograph these same places. I returned to the Lake, the River, the Meadows, and Upper Ojai to capture ways in which the environment has visibly shifted over the past two years. I was not surprised to find noticeable and measurable changes; at the same time, I found plenty of greenery, life, and evidence that the ecosystem is thriving best it can within such an extreme state of existence.

Ventura River empty of water but still full of growth. Ventura River Preserve, October 2016

When I began photographing in October 2014, it had only been 7 months since the State of California declared a Drought State of Emergency on January 17th, 2014. The declaration is still in effect, and as of July 1st of this year, the Casitas Municipal Water District mandated a Stage 3 Drought, urging even tighter restrictions on water usage. According to an article in the VC Star written April 18th of this year, Lake Casitas water level has dropped 69 feet, the lowest it has been since it first began to fill in the 1960’s, after the dam was built. The lake’s capacity has dropped into the 40% range, prompting mandatory emergency water conservation efforts (VC Star).

One of the many separate bodies of water which now constitute Ojai's Lake Casitas. October 2016
One of the several isolated bodies of water which now constitute Ojai’s Lake Casitas. Lake Casitas, October 2016

All water in the Ojai Valley–the lake, rivers, and wells–comes from the Ventura River Watershed. As our watershed is 100% comprised of local water sources (no water is imported, as in many other watersheds), our backup in times of drying rivers and wells is the man-made Lake Casitas (venturawatershed.org). However, it is predicted that if the drought continues its course, Lake Casitas will be virtually dry in 4-6 yearsAs the Ventura River Watershed via the Casitas Municipal Water District supplies water to 60-70,000 people and hundreds of farms within Ventura County (casitaswater.org), these statistics are worrisome. Having grown up with Lake Casitas as a given environmental fixture, it is dream-like–even somewhat alienating–to walk on dry land which I had previously traversed many times via boat.

Standing where there used to be water. Lake Casitas, October 2016

In my childhood I regularly visited the Lake, where I would ride in the family’s small and leaky aluminum boat (named ‘Sludge’), host my November birthday parties at one of the many picnic areas complete with metal and plastic jungle gym, and explore the native flora and fauna. One of my first significant works of art (initially untitled, but which I now call First Duck), was created in response to an intense encounter feeding mallard ducks bread crumbs outside the Marina Cafe, at the impressionable age of 5.

(First Duck) / 1995 / crayon on paper / 19″ x 27″
Mallards and new larger (and louder) ducks at waters edge. Lake Casitas, October 2016
Lone Turkey vulture dismantling a large carp on the shore. Lake Casitas, October 2016

Though there is still a significant population of various ducks and (hopefully not too relevantly) vultures at Lake Casitas, the body of water which is the main attraction is a whisper of what I grew up experiencing.

Myself on the Lake, ~1997
Me perched on the bow of ‘Sludge’. Lake Casitas, ~1997
Photo taken from boat on Lake Casitas, around 1997
Photo taken from boat on the waters. Lake Casitas, ~1997
Areas previously deep underwater are now colonized by brush and can be explored on foot. Lake Casitas, October 2016

Growing up in Ojai and living here most of my life has imprinted in me very strong memories of the shifting seasons: the repeating cycles and patterns of weather and growth year to year. The climate throughout my childhood was relatively regular and predictable; when an extreme or unusual weather was predicted–such as El Nino–it would rain the deluge expected. I won’t forget the El Nino of 1997/8: fast-moving water blanketing all surfaces–rapids rushing tunnels under streets–rising up front door steps inch by inch–backyard pool drowned in brown water.

My brother and I peering outside at the flood waters creeping in. Ojai, 1997
View from living room window during the El Nino of 1997
View from living room window during El Nino. Ojai, 1997
Backyard pool after the flood, 1997
Backyard pool after the flood. Ojai, 1997







Late Winter, Spring and Summer have come and gone this year providing less than our average rainfall, despite the prediction (and desperate hype) of an El Nino deluge. As of January, this El Nino has produced only 50% of what El Nino produced from October 1997 to January 1998 (3.77inches vs. 7.6 inches) (accuweather.com). While we have received more rain this year than the past couple of years, it is clear El Nino will not bail us out of the drought. What is considered ‘average’ or ‘normal’ yearly rainfall for Ventura County is around 16 inches (currentresults.com); The Los Angeles Almanac calculated that the Los Angeles area received around 10 inches between July 2015 and June 2016. If the pattern of drought continues, perhaps what is considered ‘average’ rainfall will have to be readjusted. Boat launches at Lake Casitas are closed or readjusted as the shore recedes and as bodies of water become increasingly more shallow and isolated.

The main boat launch has been closed for years, for obvious reasons. Lake Casitas, October 2014
The same boat launch, as seen from the opposite side and two years later. Lake Casitas, October 2016
Seen from the opposite shore: the same boat launch, two years later. Lake Casitas, October 2016

Even those who do not remember the Lake before the drought conditions began to drain it can witness the visual strata revealed from the dramatic lowering of the waterline:

Water level decrease visible on island. Lake Casitas, October 2014
Native Coast Live Oaks which previously lined the lake shore are now high above it, and showing signs of stress. Lake Casitas, October 2016

The dwindling of water in the Lake has, on a positive note, unearthed (or perhaps, ‘unwatered’) some interesting history which has been buried for over half a century. Before the dam was built in 1959, Highway 150–which now winds around the lake through the hills–traversed the basin, routing people to their homes and even a school house built in the 1920’s (VC Star). A road which was ‘history’ decades ago is now an element of the landscape once again.

Highway 150 revisited: this road was the original 150, built before the Casitas dam was completed in 1959. The payment shows no sign of wear-and-tear despite having been underwater for over 50 years. This road now provides access to an adjusted boat harbor, which is far from the ‘mainland’ and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Lake Casitas, October 2016

Worth mentioning, though unrelated to the drought, is a find at Lake Casitas from the year 2000: fossilized whale bones dating back 25 million years (Los Angeles Times). This was no freshwater whale! Fossils of undersea creatures such as mollusks and starfish found in the upper Sespe Creek area indicate that millions of years ago the area was oceanic (Wikipedia). Not to mention the epic Piedra Blanca (‘white rock’) in the Sepse Wilderness (whose rock face to me looks like a victim of glacier striation). These tangible facts remind us that the Ojai Valley and surrounding Los Padres Forest have gone through many variations of climate change even before humans existed.  In my own explorations of the Lake, I engaged in a form of time travel as I stumbled upon various mummies from the past:

Beer can only mildly corroded from decades of underwater submersion (they stopped making Olympia beer in 1983!). Note the slogan on the can: “It’s the Water”. Lake Casitas, October 2014
1980’s A&W root beer can uncovered by the receding shore. Lake Casitas, October 2014
Not-so-distant past: a contemporary Starbucks cup just under the surface. If people hundreds of years from stumbled upon this, would they believe there used to be mermaids here? October 2016
Not-so-distant past: a contemporary Starbucks cup just under the surface. If people hundreds of years from now stumbled upon this, would they believe there used to be mermaids here? October 2016

In addition to man-made artifacts, I found evidence of flora and fauna thriving, striving, and struggling. Overall, native plants are less lush than they traditionally have been. Yet many, like this Epilobium canum, (California Red Fuchsia), manage to happily speckle the browning grey landscape with vibrant primary color:

A small but vivacious California Red Fuchsia blooming. Lake Casitas, October 2016

Non-native (and water-hogging) plants like the Eucalyptus are fairing less well–but perhaps this is just as well.

A dead eucalyptus tree. Lake Casitas, October 2016

Unfortunately, however, some native species, like Quercus Agrifolia–the iconic Coast Live Oak–are having an undeniably rough time pulling through between rains. Though many other native trees like the Sycamore have been revealing signs of stress, only the Live Oaks have been dying in large numbers. The dried oaks also increase the likelihood and intensity of wildfires (VC Star).

Dead oaks along a trail. Ventura River Preserve, October 2016
Broken dead oak branch still somewhat attached to the main tree. Ojai Wetlands Preserve, October 2016
Fractured dead oak branch still (somewhat) attached to the main tree. Ojai Meadows Preserve, October 2016
The ‘Live’ in Coast Live Oak means that it does not lose its leaves in the winter. Extensive browning of leaves is unusual, and certainly a sign of stress. Ojai Meadows Preserve, October 2016
Drought tolerant White Sage in the river is scraggly, yet shows evidence of having bloomed in Spring. Ventura River Preserve, October 2016
Native Sycamores, unlike the Live Oak, lose their leaves in Fall. Despite many Sycamores showing early browning of leaves, most have managed to regrow again as usual come Spring. Ventura River Preserve, October 2016

It is hard to know what effects the decrease of oak trees in the Valley will have on the total ecosystem. The iconic nature of the Coast Live Oak in Ojai goes beyond aesthetic appreciation: it must certainly be iconic to the nature it is a part of–a sort of leader among the native flora and fauna. In the Pacific Northwest there were fossils discovered of the Coast Live Oak dating 20 million years back, suggesting that the tree has undergone little evolutionary change (Cal Poly Land), and implying that it has been a member of the California ecosystem for at least that long. In more recent (but still seemingly distant) times, its acorns were a staple food for at least twelve Native American tribes throughout California (Wikipedia).

Though we ‘contemporary’ humans no longer rely on native plants for food, the cultivation of crops in Ojai–the agriculture which supports our community nutritionally, economically, and spiritually–is inevitably hampered by the drying up of the Ventura River Watershed. Ojai’s agriculture–from our iconic orange orchards to organic farms and small co-ops–completely depend upon local water sources. In the Fall 2016 edition of Edible Ojai & Ventura County, local organic farmer and owner of Farmer and the Cook restaurant Steve Sprinkel declared that water in the well he irrigates from has decreased by 50% since 2013. Proposed efforts to shuttle water from non-local sources do not bring much promise of fulfilling the water needs of farmers, let alone the rest of the community.

What look like pancakes on a hot griddle are actually piles of removed orange trees. Upper Ojai, 2014
What look like pancakes on a hot griddle are actually piles of removed orange trees. Upper Ojai, 2014

Though there is a limit to what we as humans can do to alleviate the symptoms of drought and climate change, people have been and are continuing to make concerted efforts to rehabilitate and conserve our habitat. In 2001 The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy acquired a plot of abused and neglected land which is now the Ojai Meadows Preserve. Efforts over the years to re-establish a native ecosystem there include diverting flood waters into the area and replacing non-native plants with native ones (Ojai Land Conservancy).  Now a protected and accessible chunk of landscape many native species call home, it is a living educational showcase of the many facets of our local ecosystem. I went there with my camera in October 2014 and again in 2016.

Looks like rain!? Hopefully at the Meadows Preserve, October 2014
Sycamore trees planted in the Preserve have grown bigger over the past two years despite drought conditions. Meadows Preserve, October 2016

Even with less-than-optimal water resources, I found evidence of flora and fauna happily inhabiting the area.

Look for the rabbit hiding in plain sight! Ojai Meadows Preserve, October 2014
Dry area. Meadows Preserve, October 2016
Still some water! Meadows Preserve, October 2016









View of Topa Topa bluffs from the Ojai Wetland Preserve. October 2016
View of Topa Topa bluffs behind native brush. Ojai Meadows Preserve, October 2016
Evidence of native Milkweed having bloomed in the field (and I did see a Monarch fluttering nearby). Meadows Preserve, October 2016

However dry the Valley becomes over the course of the drought, we need not be fully discouraged by present appearances and circumstances. Though it would take an large and unknowable amount of water and time to restore the Valley’s resources and bring back an optimal climate, the ecosystem continues its seasonal cycles with what it is given. Photos I took at the Meadows Preserve in March of this year demonstrate that a little Spring rain can go a long way:

Cyan, magenta, and yellow in the meadow. Meadows Preserve, March 2016
Armies of yellow and purple flowers compliment each other. Meadows Preserve, March 2016
California Poppies, the State flower, returned again to the meadow. Wetlands, March 2016
The State flower, the California Poppy, reborn again in Spring. Meadows Preserve, March 2016
Egret at wetland's egde. Wetlands, March 2016
Local egret enjoying fresh water after Spring rains. Meadows Preserve, March 2016

Also in March of this year I went to the Ventura River Preserve, where I found a myriad of colorful blooming growth and vibrant greenery:

Purple Owl’s Clover–in the daytime! Ventura River Preserve, March 2016
Lavender Lupine. Ventura River Preserve, March 2016
Ceanothus against a cerulean sky. Ventura River Preserve, March 2016





Exceptionally green and healthy Live Oak leaves. Ventura River Preserve, March 2016
Shangri-la? Ventura River Preserve, March 2016

The effects of the Southern California drought on the ecosystem and community of the Ojai Valley have become increasingly more visible since the State of Emergency was decreed in January of 2014. Indeed the drought was already underway long before that. Looking around at our habitat, it is impossible not to notice the depths of vertical striations which design the Lake’s edge; the exceptional dryness of the rehabilitated Meadows; the increase of the color brown in the palette painting the mountains; non-native Eucalyptus and native Oaks together struggling to persist. However, life and growth in the Valley continue on, natural cycles and patterns adjusting as needed for the evolution of the landscape . We must continue to look around us and be aware of the rapid and gradual changes which are underway and which will effect the future. As history rolls on unfolding moment by moment, we shall see–if we continue to look at what is, that is. 

Topa Topa bluffs. Upper Ojai, October 2014
Topa Topa mountains and surrounding landscape. Upper Ojai, October 2016
Ojai Valley, October 2014
Ojai Valley, October 2016

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