A Kings County Superior Court Judge will decide April 1 whether a large water pipeline barreling from Lemoore southwest past Stratford must be reviewed under the state’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Regardless of that decision, the full-blown water war that has erupted between Sandridge Partners or J.G. Boswell Company, who are behind this and other legal skirmishes, will continue.
If Judge Valerie Chrissakis does rule on April 1 that the pipeline being built by Sandridge should come under CEQA review, that could subject it to months-long environmental studies and a whole lot more public scrutiny. The line has been the subject of intense curiosity among area farmers and even Boswell’s attorney has asked in court hearings what water the line will move and to where?
Sandridge, controlled by John Vidovich, began building the 48-inch pipeline last fall north of Lemoore. It was trenched about 13 miles south to near the small town of Stratford where the giant J.G. Boswell Company stopped the line in its tracks.
Sandridge was set to trench under the Tulare Lake Canal, controlled by Boswell, in January. But after a flurry of demands and refusals between the entities, Boswell moved bulldozers and other heavy equipment onto the canal banks to block construction. Another flurry of court actions then ensued.
What started as a trespass case morphed into a CEQA lawsuit after the Boswell contingent alleged the Stratford Public Utilities District and Angiola Water District, both public agencies, were involved. Purely private construction projects aren’t subject to CEQA review.
Stratford PUD granted the pipeline a 380-foot easement on land it owns and there has been some discussion that the line could potentially take the district’s wastewater at some point in the future.
As for Angiola, a letter was sent on Sandridge letterhead promising that Sandridge and Angiola would indemnify the canal company from any damage the pipeline might cause. It also stated that the pipeline “will be used by Angiola Water District and other associated entities as well.” It was signed by Vidovich and Mark Grewal, Angiola’s general manager.
Though attorneys for Sandridge said the terms in that letter weren’t accepted by Tulare Lake Canal Company, so it is not a binding contract and is more of a suggestion of possible future use of the pipeline than an actual commitment for use by Angiola, Judge Chrissakis wasn’t convinced.
She said a public agency can’t escape CEQA review by claiming it doesn’t know if it will use a privately constructed facility such as a building, road or pipeline, if “behind the scenes” it does, in fact, plan to use that facility.
“My concern has always been that this letter says the pipeline ‘will be used’ by Angiola,” Chrissakis said Wednesday.
If Chrissakis did find a need for CEQA review, Sandridge attorney Kristi Marshall urged the judge to be very narrow by perhaps finding that Angiola or Stratford must do a CEQA review before using the line, but not to place an injunction on construction of the pipeline by Sandridge. A finding that CEQA was required on an irrigation line could have far reaching consequences for any farmer digging a line, including J.G. Boswell, she noted.
While both sides await the judge’s decision on the CEQA and related trespass issue, a new court action has emerged in which Sandridge is accusing Boswell of purposely “buzzing” cattle on its lands, causing them to bust through their pens and, in one instance, collide with a vehicle on Highway 41.
These battles are just the tip of the iceberg of what has become a full on Vidovich-Boswell water war.
Vidovich has accused Boswell of selling off or transferring its State Water Project and Kings River supplies and then continuing to farm using groundwater, which could cause more subsidence in a region that has already suffered significant sinking.
The Kings River Water Association, where Boswell is a major rights holder, is suing Tulare Lake Reclamation District 761, controlled by Vidovich, for shipping its Kings River water to the Dudley Ridge Water District in western Kings County. The association contends that those lands aren’t in the river’s “service area.” A trial is set for December 2022.
Boswell and Vidovich are also on opposite sides of an attempt by Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County to gain rights to Kings River flood water. The Kern water district has claimed rights holders in the Kings River Water Association aren’t fully using the water and has applied to 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, between the Blakeley Canal and California Aqueduct. Semitropic has paid him $40 million for an easement and Vidovich would also get a cut of the flood water and be allowed to use the facilities to move groundwater, per the project contract. The state Water Board began holding hearings on that issue last June.