Fight over Kings County pipeline just the latest clash between water titans

February 9, 2022
by Lois Henry
This aerial photo shows heavy equipment lining the Tulare Canal banks to block trenching for a pipeline project from continuing beneath the canal. SOURCE: Complaint filed by Sandridge Partners.
Lois Henry

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Trucks and heavy equipment emblazoned with the distinctive diamond “B” logo parked on the banks of the Tulare Lake Canal late last month weren’t sending a subtle message.

The giant JG Boswell Company has little love for Sandridge Partners. Nor for the man who runs it, John Vidovich, nor for his current pipeline project that will move water from various places in Kings County to various other undisclosed locations.

Trenching for the pipeline was slated to cut under the Tulare Lake Canal in late January but the canal company, which is controlled by Boswell, made several demands. It wanted an operating agreement and hefty insurance coverage. Sandridge sent a “hold harmless” letter and refused the rest.

A closeup of a piece of equipment used to block construction of a pipeline shows the diamond “B” logo, which indicates the rig is owned by the JG Boswell Company. SOURCE: Sandridge complaint.

 

The canal company sued but couldn’t immediately stop the project. So, it went old school and blocked the pipeline with bulldozers, trucks and excavators. Sandridge filed for a restraining order.

A judge is set to consider the restraining order at a hearing Thursday. Meanwhile, the complaint against Sandridge by Tulare Lake Canal Company is still pending.

Welcome to Kings County, where water wars still rage both in and outside the courthouse and often have deeper currents than what appears in legal papers.

Take this latest skirmish.

At face value, the Tulare Lake Canal Company is simply making sure a construction project doesn’t harm its current or future operations.

But comments made during a hearing Monday on Sandridge’s restraining order pulled back the curtain on the real concern.

“You don’t know the purpose of this pipeline,” Tulare Lake Canal Company attorney Leonard Herr told the judge.

The purpose of the pipeline is irrelevant, said Sandridge Attorney Marshall Whitney. Sandridge owns the property that the canal cuts through, he said. The Tulare Lake Canal Company only has an easement allowing it to pass water through the land. Putting a blockade on the canal banks was not a legitimate use of that easement, he said.

“This is all being driven by the JG Boswell Company out of animus, not out of practicality,” Whitney told the judge.

Perhaps.

But the purpose of the 48-inch Sandridge pipeline has been the subject of intense curiosity since last November when farmers first noticed excavators gouging a giant trench into the earth from north of Lemoore meandering 12 miles south to Stratford and, presumably, ending in the Blakeley Canal. The Blakeley runs southwest next to Highway 41 down to Kettleman City, conveniently near to the California Aqueduct.

And that’s the deeper current here. Will this pipeline move water out of Kings County to farmers in Kern County? Or even to the great water bogeyman that haunts so many valley farmers – Los Angeles?

After all, Vidovich, water and pipelines have a history in Kings County.

Water moves remembered

It will likely never be forgotten that Vidovich sold the rights to 14,000 acre feet of State Water Project water for $79 million in 2009 to the San Bernardino-based Mojave Water District. That was a permanent water loss to Kings County that many still grumble over.

In 2013, the Lower Tule River and Pixley irrigation districts sued Angiola Water District, whose largest landowner is Vidovich, for over pumping groundwater from a well field in Tulare County and moving it outside the county. Vidovich has said he only moves local groundwater to other lands he farms in Kings County. But water pipelines aren’t permitted or monitored by Kings County, according to the county Public Works Director, so it’s impossible to know if they stop at the county line. And Kings County doesn’t have an ordinance against moving groundwater outside its borders.

When contacted in December by SJV Water about this new pipeline, Vidovich wouldn’t say what type of water it would carry (groundwater? river water? state water?) nor its destination. But in the ongoing legal fracas, a declaration by Sandridge  Farm Manager Craig Andrew sketches out the picture.

The line will “transfer well water belonging to Sandridge Partners for irrigation purposes,” Andrew’s declaration states. Water from Angiola Water District will also be moved in the line, according to a declaration by Angiola General Manager Mark Grewal.

Moving well water to irrigate better ground is another Vidovich hallmark. He has let large swaths of his 100,000+ acres in Kings County go fallow in order to move groundwater to more productive land, typically fields he owns in the Dudley Ridge Water District, in western Kings County. But he’s also moved his State Water Project supplies south to lands he owns in Kern County.

Boswell has also transferred or sold large chunks of its surface water, both state and Kings River supplies out of the county, over the years. The difference, Vidovich has charged, is that Boswell continues to farm using groundwater. Something Vidovich declared is “Really, really not cool,” in an area that has already sunk more than 11 feet in the past 14 years because of groundwater extractions.

Boswell has declined to answer questions about its water transfers as well as the amount of groundwater it pumps.

The most recent Boswell-Vidovich beef joins at least two other ongoing legal battles over water.

Kings River service area fight

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 Dudley Ridge. The association contends that those lands aren’t in the river’s “service area.”

The case is being heard in Kern County where now retired Judge David Lampe made a partial ruling last June that river owners are allowed to move their water. But the service area boundaries have yet to be determined. A trial date has been set for December 2022.

Kings River flood water fight

Boswell and Vidovich are also on opposite sides of whether Kings River flood water is being fully utilized by its rights holders. If the State Water Resources Control Board decides not, it could give those rights away.

Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County has applied for the flood water which it plans to store 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 Kings River Water Association, including the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, where Boswell is the majority landowner, are fighting the plan saying all available water is already being used. The Water Board began holding hearings on the issue this past summer.

Back to the pipeline.

The judge on Thursday may find in Sandridge’s favor as she already issued a tentative ruling last week which noted that, “The use of the heavy equipment to stop the pipe project is not a protected tactic under the law.”

Regardless of Thursday’s ruling, onlookers can expect it won’t be the end of this issue. Nor the end of the clash of Kings County’s most powerful water titans.

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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