Fallout from Kings County water war continues as state mulls groundwater plan

August 29, 2022
by Lois Henry
Pelicans settle on a vast lake in Kings County where the J.G. Boswell Company stores large amounts of groundwater pumped from beneath land it farms on the old Tulare Lake bed. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

Pumping and pumping…

The J.G. Boswell Company pumps, on average, 100,000 acre feet of groundwater a year from beneath its lands covering the old Tulare Lake Bed, according to a Boswell employee.

The information was elicited in a wide-ranging deposition of Boswell water department manager Mark Unruh as part of an ongoing lawsuit over a pipeline being built by rival farming entity Sandridge Partners, controlled by John Vidovich.

Unruh also runs the Tulare Lake Canal Company, controlled by Boswell. The canal company sued to stop the Sandridge pipeline as the line was trenched to the edge of the canal banks.

A judge temporarily halted the line and Sandridge is appealing that order. It’s been conducting depositions in preparation of its next court date Sept. 27.

In an Aug. 1 deposition, Unruh was asked about Boswell’s groundwater pumping and said the company has approximately 100 wells, but only 80 are operational. The 20 or so that aren’t operating have failed because of problems with the casings, he testified.

With those that are operational wells, he said, the company pumps 100,000 acre feet of groundwater a year, Unruh testified.

In June 2021, Unruh testified during a state Water Resources Control Board hearing on the Kings River that Boswell irrigates nearly year-round from late October through the summer months. He said at that time that Boswell had 62 wells capable of pumping a combined 240 cubic feet per second, which would allow the company to extract 140,000 acre feet per year.

That proceeding was part of an application by Semitropic Water Storage District for flood waters on the Kings River, which Boswell opposes.

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There’s no word, yet, of state intervention in the ongoing water war between two of Kings County’s largest growers – John Vidovich and the J.G. Boswell Company – but there has been fallout.

Kimberly Brown, a board member of  the Southwest Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency, resigned August 10 in protest of last-minute language added to the region’s groundwater plan. 

That language, it’s widely believed, could prompt negative action from the state Department of Water Resources affecting the entire subbasin.

Brown’s response is significant as she not only represented the Dudley Ridge Water District on the groundwater agency, she is also a vice president of the large and powerful Wonderful Orchards farming company.

Wonderful is a key player in the Vidovich-Boswell fracas as its acreage in Kern County is the likely destination for water that has been shipped south from  Kings County by both Boswell and Sandridge Partners, controlled by Vidovich.

Brown declined to discuss her resignation from the Southwest Kings groundwater agency.

A letter she sent to the board Aug. 9, though, lays out concerns about a last-minute amendment to the subbasin’s groundwater plan that was pushed by Vidovich.

“…members were denied any opportunity to appropriately review the information before being required to vote,” Brown wrote in her resignation letter. “It was clear the changes would result in a non-unified Basin GSP that would lead to State Board intervention.”

The amendment states that groundwater agencies will work to “prevent the inefficient storage of groundwater in shallow basins.” That has been a longstanding beef by Vidovich against Boswell.

He has pointed out that Boswell has regularly pumped hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water from beneath the old Tulare Lake bed and stored it in vast, shallow ponds for later irrigation.

The practice, he has said, is wasteful and worsens the area’s already problematic subsidence, or land sinking.

Boswell has declined to comment on the issue.

Because the other four groundwater agencies in Kings County didn’t include that language in a joint groundwater plan, DWR could find the region doesn’t have a coordinated plan – a major fail under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires regions bring aquifers into balance by 2040.

If DWR gives Kings an “F,” that could put the region into the hands of the State Water Resources Control Board, SGMA’s enforcement arm. The Water Board then has the authority to force a pumping plan of its own on area farmers, which could include sharp fines and fees.

Vidovich told SJV Water in August that, he fully anticipates the issue will move up the chain to the Water Board. 

“I’m assuming this practice will be the focus of the state Water Board,” he said in reference to Boswell’s groundwater pumping and storage. “This one practice.”

If DWR refers the subbasin to the Water Board, it’s unclear what the board would focus on.

For Wonderful’s Brown, that risk and the manner in which the amendment was presented were the final straw, according to her Aug. 9 resignation letter. 

She wrote that board members weren’t given enough time to review the new language before being required to vote even though it was clear adding the amendment would place the subbasin in jeopardy.

“My principled opposition to this process and its outcome is one of the key reasons, though not the only one, that has led to my decision to step down from my role as a longtime board member.”

Meanwhile, Boswell and Vidovich are engaged in several other ongoing water battles.

The Tulare Lake Canal Company, controlled by Boswell, sued Sandridge Partners to stop a large pipeline Sandridge is putting in to carry water from north of Lemoore more than 14 miles in southwest Kings. Boswell’s attorney’s have asked multiple times in court where the water is going. Sandridge employees have said it will be used for farming.

The judge in that case has temporarily halted the pipeline and the two sides are deposing one another (see sidebar) as Sandridge prepares its appeal. The next court date is set for September 27.

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 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.

The state Water Board began holding hearings on that issue in June 2021.

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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