The shifting of earth’s crust along nearby fault lines created the depression known as Laguna Blanca Basin in Hope Ranch, an unincorporated suburb in Santa Barbara County. Tectonic movement also rerouted the course of the creek that once ran through the area from the north, as well as blocked the basin’s southward flowing drainage outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The end result was a low spot that filled with water creating a natural pond.
Some time long ago, either Cieneguitas Creek or Arroyo Burro Creek flowed through the Laguna Blanca area and cut a gorge through the hills and into the ocean at Hope Ranch Beach (see map below). Movement along the More Ranch Fault eventually deflected the stream’s course, either west if it was Cieneguitas or east if Arroyo Burro, and left behind a stream cut and wind gap leading to the sea. Uplift along Lavigia Fault blocked further outflow from the basin and created a dam of raised land behind which formed Laguna Blanca.
Historically, though natural, the lake appeared periodically based on the vagaries of weather and the amount of seasonal rainfall. The water level would rise and fall, the pond fill and evaporate. When it went dry the lake bottom crusted over in a layer of hard mineral evaporite and turned white. This may be the origin of the Spanish place name “Laguna Blanca” or “White Lake.”
A standout feature of the landscape, the wetland habitat has long lured wildlife to its shores, as well as some of the region’s earliest people. To the Chumash Indians the pond was known as “Chaco” or lake-without-a-mouth. A few miles away, in an area now defined by Modoc Road, Hollister Avenue and El Sueno Road, an Indian village was located when the Spanish explored the area in 1769. The Indians became known as the Cieneguitas Indians due to their village location near the swampy marsh land or, in Spanish, the “cieneguitas.” Early reports about Laguna Blanca, prior to it being artificially filled year round, tell of arrowheads being found on the flats when the lake went dry.
The American development of Hope Ranch started in earnest around the last decade of the nineteenth century. Laguna Blanca became the centerpiece of the exclusive neighborhood that took shape, but the region’s drought cycles continued to ensure that the pond occasionally went dry turning an oasis into an eyesore. In order to keep it filled a horizontal well was bored into the upper reaches of San Roque Canyon in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Fresh spring water flowed to the pond through an eight-inch pipeline, but by the 1960s the artesian artery had deteriorated and was abandoned. A new well was subsequently drilled near Modoc Road as a replacement source to permanently sustain the lake. Although in the interest of water conservation the small lake has subsequently been allowed to go dry during droughts.
Today Laguna Blanca serves as the focal point of La Cumbre Country Club. While the surrounding landscape has been forever altered beyond recognition from its past, the lake remains an attestation to the area’s natural history.
A map showing the locations of Laguna Blanca and surrounding geological features. The red lines show the courses of Cieneguitas Creek on the left and Arroyo Burro on the right with the center red line being the old drainage channel from the lake to the sea. The fault line locations in purple are rough approximations.
As an historical aside of a different type: The map bears the label “Las Positas y La Calera” over the land of what is today Hope Ranch. The name reflects the historical legacy of the area, which was deeded as land grants by the Mexican government in the nineteenth century. The Las Positas Rancho was one of the last land grants issued by Mexico before California fell under American ownership following the Mexican War (1846-48). Las Positas was named for the numerous pools found around Veronica Springs, which is labeled on the lower right-hand corner of the map. The La Calera Rancho was named after the old lime kiln built by Franciscans in their construction of the Santa Barbara Mission. The kiln was located south of Laguna Blanca, east of Laguna Blanca School and alongside Las Palmas Drive.
Robert M. Norris, The Geology and Landscape of Santa Barbara County, California and Its Offshore Islands (2003).
Walker A. Tompkins, Santa Barbara Neighborhoods (1989).