Accusations continue to fly between two valley ag titans in water feud

May 18, 2022
by Lois Henry
Several canals feed groundwater into a shallow basin in Kings County in this late April photo. Large farming entity, Sandridge Partners, has accused fellow large grower, J.G. Boswell Company, of filling the basin with groundwater for irrigation. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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The ongoing water feud between two of Kings County’s biggest farming entities recently spilled into Kern County and up to Sacramento with allegations on both sides of misuse of water and other public resources.

In a May 12 letter, the Southwest Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency complains that the J.G. Boswell Company has been pumping and storing massive amounts of groundwater for irrigation in a shallow basin, subjecting it to extreme evaporation and contributing to the area’s already significant subsidence problems.

The Southwest Kings GSA is chaired by John Vidovich, who runs Sandridge Partners, which owns hundreds of thousands throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Vidovich has long been at odds with Boswell over water.

“This egregious misuse of groundwater by the J G Boswell Company cannot be overlooked,” the letter states. It then cites Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution, which says, in part, “…the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented.”

Though the letter doesn’t state how much groundwater Boswell has pumped, it notes the irrigation basin, originally built as a floodwater containment cell, can hold 30,000 acre feet of water.

When a reporter visited the site in late April, the basin appeared nearly full and wells on Boswell-owned lands were furiously pumping groundwater into ditches and canals.

The GSA letter was sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and the state Water Resources Control Board and seeks a meeting to “discuss positive solutions.”

At the same time, Sandridge also sent a “cease and desist” letter to Boswell saying it had overfilled the floodwater cell. Sandridge claims a 1981 agreement only allows Boswell to store water up to 200 feet elevation. Water in the flood cell had already reached 202 feet elevation, according to the cease and desist letter.

Emails to Boswell Vice President Jeoff Wyrick asking about the flood cell and Boswell pumping were not answered.

Requests for interviews with Crowfoot were also not answered.

Meanwhile, Wyrick, apparently, made a statement during the April 20 meeting of the Buena Vista Water Storage District in Kern County that Sandridge, or Vidovich, may have improperly used district resources, according to Vidovich. 

Vidovich had been board president until that same April meeting, when he stepped down and nominated former board president Terry Chicca to take his place. Vidovich maintains his seat on the board.

Vidovich said the two things – Wyrick’s statement and him stepping down as president – are not related.

As for whether there was misuse of district resources, Vidovich said after Wyrick brought it up, the district formed a committee to look at its policies on use of resources by private landowners.

“Buena Vista has a policy of, when it has excess resources, they could be available for use by landowners,” Vidovich said. Resources include access to a computer mapping program, work on pipelines, installing canal turnouts, etc.

“The district has done private work for many of the landowners. And they pay for it,” Vidovich said. “Anything I did, I paid for and I’d say I used them far less than other landowners.”

He chalked up the Buena Vista fracas to the ongoing feud between Boswell and Vidovich that involves several water issues.

“Clearly, Boswell is taking potshots at me,” Vidovich said.

Perhaps. But Vidovich hasn’t been a silent victim. He has accused Boswell of selling off its surface water while continuing to farm using groundwater, hence the need to fill that large basin with well water for irrigation, according to Vidovich.

Vidovich has no issue with moving or selling water, something he does regularly. But, he has said, he then fallows land that he’s moved water off of, rather than double dip by using groundwater continue farming that ground.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this battle of valley ag titans where things have gotten downright old school on occasion.

The floodwater 

On the Kings River, Boswell and Vidovich are on opposite sides of an attempt by Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County to gain rights to floodwater off the Kings. The Kern County water district has claimed rights holders in the Kings River Water Association, where Boswell is a majority member, aren’t fully using the water. Semitropic has applied for flood licenses from the State Water Resources Control board.

If it gets that flood water, Semitropic plans to store it on land owned by Vidovich near Kettleman City before moving it through the California Aqueduct and down to Kern County. Semitropic paid Vidovich $40 million for an easement on that land. He would also get a cut of the flood water and be able to use the project’s facilities to move his own water.

The state Water Board began holding hearings on that issue last June.

The “place of use” 

In a separate action, the Kings River Water Association is suing Tulare Lake Reclamation District 761, controlled by Vidovich, for shipping its Kings River water to Dudley Ridge Water District in western Kings County.

The association contends those lands aren’t in the river’s “service area.” Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe, who has since retired, issued a tentative ruling last year that river rights holders can move their water within the service area, but that area has yet to be defined.

A trial is set for December 2022 in Kern County. Water cases are often heard outside their county of origin to avoid conflicts of interest.

The pipeline

In January of this year, Boswell, via the Tulare Lake Canal Company, which Boswell controls, sued Sandridge/Vidovich to stop it from putting a 48-inch pipeline under the canal. As the case made its way through the Kings County court system trenching continued so Boswell went old school, parking bulldozers on the canal banks to prevent construction.

In numerous court filings, Boswell’s attorney asked what water would be moved through the pipeline and where it would go. A Sandridge employee, in a declaration, stated the line would move groundwater about 13 miles from north of Lemoore south  “for irrigation purposes.”

A Kings County judge issued a preliminary injunction against the pipeline based on the California Environmental Quality Act. That case will resume on May 25.

The “buzzing”

While the pipeline case was underway, Sandridge sued Boswell for allegedly buzzing cattle on its lands using a large helicopter causing the animals to stampede. The lawsuit alleged the actions were in retaliation for the pipeline. A hearing is set in that case for May 31.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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