A long simmering water war between Kings County’s two biggest farming entities blew up Wednesday over groundwater when the state rejected the region’s plan to shore up its declining aquifer.
The fallout could be significant if the state pursues enforcement, which could include pumping limits, steep fines and fees for all groundwater users in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers most of Kings.
“We’re all gonna pay the price for this,” said Kings County Supervisor and farmer Doug Verboon. “It’s like being in a classroom, you got two kids that are the class clowns, disrupting the whole class, and you all pay the price.”
He referred to the farming entities, Sandridge Partners LLC, controlled by John Vidovich, and the J.G. Boswell Farming Company. The two have been battling over a number of water issues, including groundwater.
On Wednesday, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) found the Tulare Lake subbasin’s plan “inadequate” on its face because one of the five groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) stuck in an extra paragraph at the last minute saying all the GSAs would work “to prevent the inefficient storage of groundwater in shallow basins.”
That seemingly innocuous sentence came from the Southwest Kings GSA, controlled by Vidovich, and was aimed squarely at Boswell.
Vidovich has long contended that Boswell is selling off its surface water and pumping excessive amounts of groundwater to store in shallow ponds for later irrigation. The practice, Vidovich has said, is abusive of the aquifer and an inefficient use of water as much of it evaporates before it can be used.
Boswell has countered in letters to the state that Vidovich’s claims are inaccurate and that Vidovich has water sins to answer for himself, including moving water via pipelines to undisclosed locations. Joef Wyrick, Vice President of Boswell, has complained that it’s impossible to know the full extent of Vidovich’s actions because of the “hidden nature” of the moves by Sandridge Partners.
Lurking not far in the background is the specter of the State Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
According to the DWR notice Wednesday, it had already referred the Tulare Lake Groundwater Sustainability Plan to the state board for possible enforcement.
The board, however, directed DWR to finish its technical assessment of the full plan first.
That work should be done by early 2023, according to a DWR notice.
The Tulare Lake GSP was first deemed incomplete in January. A revamped plan was submitted on July 27.
But not before the Southwest Kings GSA, controlled by Vidovich, added the new language to its section of the GSP at the last minute on July 22.
Wyrick, chair of the El Rico GSA which is controlled by Boswell, sent a letter to the state on September 28 saying Vidovich was trying to “sabotage” the plan.
Wyrick writes that Vidovich had never brought up concerns about shallow pond water storage previously.
“This was the FIRST TIME that SWK or Mr. Vidovich proposed to add the concept to the GSP, with 2 hours and seven minutes before the approval despite working on the GSP for more than 4 years,” Wyrick writes.
The letter notes that the state’s groundwater law has a “bad actor” provision which “seems to cover this exact situation of one landowner trying to take a subbasin hostage.” He asks that all the GSAs except Southwest Kings be excluded from state intervention.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear if the resubmitted plan addresses deficiencies noted in the state’s first evaluation last January because the new groundwater language in the Southwest Kings GSA means there is no coordinated plan covering the Tulare Lake subbasin, according to the state.
“It is almost, do not pass go because it’s not complete. So it’s sort of a statutorily automatic, inadequate determination,” said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of SGMA for DWR.
Vidovich and Southwest Kings GSA staff declined to comment.
Vidovich had previously told SJV Water that he was hoping the State Water Resources Board would, indeed, intervene – specifically on the issue of Boswell’s pumping and groundwater storage ponds.
But it’s unclear where state intervention would stop once it began.
“Whether it’s us or the State Board, the law really directs us to have the program returned to the local level as quickly as possible,” said Gosselin. “If and when any of these agencies resolve the deficiencies that were identified, we’re going to make every effort to get the basin back in full control.”
That’s a risk Verboon, who farms 187s acres north of Hanford, didn’t want to take. He wasn’t happy with Vidovich’s state gambit but also disagreed with Boswell’s pumping and groundwater storage.
“We should all come together and work to protect the future of our county. And we’re not doing that,” said Verboon.
Vidovich and Boswell are powerful and do what they want, Verboon added.
“But a guy like myself and all my friends and neighbors, we’re just sitting ducks, waiting for someone to come and put rules on us that we have to perform to.”