County delays closure of Castaic Lake by week

CASTAIC -- County officials agreed on Monday to extend the closure date of Castaic Lake by one week in order to avoid a Labor Day disaster for nearby businesses, which rely heavily on holiday visitors.

With the clock ticking down to the lake's planned Aug. 31 closure, county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich pulled $50,000 from his discretionary fund to keep the lake open an extra week, in hopes that the state can find $2.8 million to run the lake for the rest of the year.

"(The state) is buying time in order to put more of their ducks in a row -- this is a good-faith gesture on our part that they will, in fact, make this happen," said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich. "Labor Day is a big day for the commerce in the area, and at the very least this addresses those concerns."

Antonovich's bid to extend the lake's operation comes as county officials get more and more desperate to find a solution.

Monday, Bell said the county is considering a public-private partnership to operate the lake, although specifics for such a plan are still hazy.

"This problem is going to require some out-of-the-box thinking," Bell said. "We're looking at every possible angle, we're uncovering every stone."

With the extension, the state-owned, county-operated lake is scheduled to close Sept. 7, due to a county budget shortfall.

Currently, the lake is operated by the county, costing about $2.8 million per year. Facing a $4 million shortfall, county officials say the state-owned lake is among their last funding priorities.

Therefore, the county is handing the responsibility back to the state.

But with a historic state budget crisis in the Capitol, finding funding in Sacramento is proving to be equally difficult.

State officials are scrambling to find funding, and a week's extension is valuable, but the outlook remains dire, said Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Granada Hills.

"I appreciate what Supervisor Antonovich is doing," Richman said. "I've been working on this for months, but whether we're going to be successful in this or not in these tough budget times, I don't know.

"I don't know what the chances are right now -- the state faces a $38 billion deficit, and all of the state's agencies are under severe financial pressures."

Boating and fishing enthusiasts as well as swimmers are growing frustrated.

"A lot of people are fed up with the whole thing. A lot of people's anger has turned into apathy," said David Jarrell, a member of Friends of Castaic Lake. "But we're still trying to get people to call Sacramento -- to flood the lines."

With the lack of funding, county officials had made plans to close the lake Aug. 31 in the middle of one of the lake's most popular three-day weekends.

Nearly 1 million people visit the lake annually, including as many as 45,000 on holiday weekends. The visitors, who stop for gas, food or an overnight stay at nearby hotels, are the center of Castaic's economy.

Sixty seasonal lifeguards would be fired if the lake closes, and seven permanent employees would be reassigned to other county facilities, officials said. Workers received layoff notices in June. l=8s=8 Nicholas Grudin, (661) 257-5255