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Some Steamed Over Water Park Near Ojai

Facility will open Saturday despite concern on droughts

September 26, 2003|Suzie St. John | Special to The Times

Despite concerns over future water supplies and tighter restrictions on new customer hookups, the Casitas Municipal Water District will open a $1.7-million water park Saturday at Lake Casitas Recreation Area near Ojai.

The new park will be able to accommodate up to 700 visitors a day and will complement a water playground, designed for children, that opened six years ago, officials said.

The park will feature a 3-foot-deep, man-made river -- with two small islands -- that visitors can cruise along on inner tubes. There will also be a recreation area and a lagoon complete with waterfall and geysers.

But the park is not making a big splash with everyone.

Foes said the district, which serves about 3,000 residents and growers in the Ojai Valley, should focus on providing water to its customers, rather than on development projects that will consume water and create more traffic and pollution in the area.

They also worry about competing demands for water, including a federal mandate for the district to provide enough water to operate a fish ladder on the Ventura River intended to aid in the recovery of the endangered steelhead trout.

"I think Casitas should stop acting like a recreation service," said David Pritchett, an ecologist and a member of the Southern California Steelhead Coalition. "They should spend more time on water supply and water quality."

District officials defended the new water park. They said the park, which will be open from mid-May through mid-October, would require only about 500,000 gallons, or between 1 and 2 acre-feet, each season, with the water being recirculated as in a pool. An acre-foot of water is equivalent to 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two homes for one year.

"Our expectation is not for the water park to be a big draw to get new customers, but to help us hold onto the customers we already have by giving them something else to do while they are here," said John J. Johnson, general manager of the water agency. He said the district had a petition with the names of about 500 residents supporting the park.

Bill Hicks, a member of the Casitas water board, said that conservation remained a top priority but stressed that the amount of water to be used by the park was minuscule.

"It's literally a drop in the bucket," he said. "I guess every little bit counts, but I think recreation counts too. It's for the people and the kids of the Ojai Valley."

Johnson and Hicks said that plans for the park were approved before the district was ordered by the federal government to build the fish ladder. Johnson said he didn't see any potential conflicts or problems with operating both the fish ladder and the water park.

The district broke ground on the estimated $7-million to $9-million fish ladder in July. Federal guidelines require a minimum of 2,000 acre-feet of water annually to operate the ladder, which will enable fish to climb over the Robles Diversion Dam to reach their spawning habitat in Matilija Creek.

With more water going to the fish ladder and less being diverted for storage at Lake Casitas, district officials expressed concerns earlier this year that there would not be enough water for customers during drought years. They warned of intensified conservation measures, reduced water allocations and higher rates.

As a result, the board imposed tighter restrictions for new water hookups. Potential customers must meet several conservation criteria before being granted service. Currently, about 50 people are on a waiting list for service, Johnson said.

The district also has hired a full-time conservation coordinator to help educate customers about water efficiency.

Meanwhile, Brian Roney, park services manager, said the new water park would be open weekends from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Oct. 19. Admission is $10.

Times staff writers Sandra Murillo and Gregory Griggs contributed to this report.

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