Cachuma Lake Fills & Spills for the First Time

Sunday April 13, 1958

"Cachuma Spills!" read the enthusiastic headlines of the Santa Barbara News-Press. Santa Barbara County residents cheered as water spilled through Bradbury Dam, the earthfill structure built in 1953.

As of today – April 13, 2020 – the lake is at 79.8% of its capacity. The Santa Ynez River, the primary inflow to the lake, is flowing east to west from its origins in the Santa Ynez Mountains to its mouth at the ocean near Lompoc. The river serves as both a source of water and peaceful respite for area residents, just as it did when the first settlers arrived in Solvang in 1911. 

The Big Red Bridge, c. 1918
This visible local landmark provided access over the Santa Ynez River to the coast via Gaviota Road.

In 1911 Solvang’s founders purchased 8,882 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley. The commercial and residential development was concentrated in the southeast corner, immediately west of Mission Santa Inés. The soil looked promising for farming and the sizable Santa Ynez River flowed nearby.

In Solvang’s early decades, the free-flowing river and its tributaries teamed with both oceangoing steelhead trout and freshwater coastal rainbow trout. Fishing drew locals to the water’s edge. (Above: Karl Knudsen, 1941.) Weighing up to 20 pounds, the steelhead provided welcome meals during tough economic times and were a treat.

After damming of the river, the breeding habitat was gravely compromised and what was once one of the largest Steelhead runs in the state dropped to less than 100 per year. Steelhead Trout are currently an endangered species.

The Santa Ynez River was a natural playground for Solvang residents prior to the construction of the dam. Swimming holes provided hours of summertime fun for kids and adults. Wildlife was abundant with frogs, turtles, water beetles and polliwogs.

Now the river is dry for many months of the year. Mandated water releases replenish the water tables downstream and keep the water level adequate for the Steelhead Trout Restoration Project – and provides opportunities for outdoor recreation.

In the 1950s, Solvang was quickly growing and establishing itself as a tourist destination. "As Cachuma's water rose toward the spilling point during recent weeks,” continued the News-Press article, “the long-range value of every piece of real estate in the Santa Ynez Valley and along the South Coast rose, too."

Sixty-two years after this milestone moment, the Santa Ynez River and Cachuma Lake remain vital to the community.

Thank you for reading and we look forward to sharing our next glimpse into history on April 19th!

Stay safe,

The Elverhøj Team

Want to learn more about the history of Solvang?
The Spirit of Solvang book is available for shipping or curbside pick-up. Call 805-686-1211 or email info@elverhoj.org to place an order.

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ELVERHØJ MUSEUM of History and Art

1624 Elverhoy Way
Solvang, CA 93463


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