Judge in Boswell-Vidovich battle says she can’t “stretch” laws to keep groundwater from leaving Kings County

April 2, 2022
by Lois Henry
The green and blue lines show the location of a Sandridge Partners pipeline project from Lemoore in Kings County to just south of Stratford. Green indicates where open ditches have been converted to pipeline. Blue indicates open ditches. SOURCE: Exhibit 36 of lawsuit between Tulare Lake Canal Company and Sandridge Partners.
Lois Henry

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A pair of lawsuits focused on trespass and environmental issues surrounding construction of a 48-inch water pipeline in Kings County are, in many ways, just a token of a much larger issue: Groundwater leaving the county, a judge noted on Friday.

“The fact that groundwater is an issue in this county isn’t disputed,” Judge Valerie Chrissakis said noting that plaintiff Tulare Lake Canal Company, controlled by J.G. Boswell Company, has referenced several other cases in which defendant Sandridge Partners has moved groundwater. Tulare Lake Canal Company attorney Leonard Herr has also repeatedly asked what water Sandridge intends to move in the line and where.

During a proceeding Friday, Chrissakis acknowledged that groundwater depletion is a serious problem and many other counties have ordinances prohibiting native groundwater from being shipped outside their borders.

“The fact is we don’t,” she said of Kings. “There are people who could have protected our county from this and, for whatever reason, they haven’t.”

But, she said, the cases before her involve trespass and whether the pipeline should come under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.

“I can’t stretch CEQA based on speculation about the potential use of the pipeline to ship groundwater out of the county,” she said.

She had been slated to rule on those trespass and CEQA issues Friday, but ran out of time to sort through the complexities of both cases.

She will try again on Monday to rule on whether to issue a preliminary injunction in the lawsuits over the Sandridge pipeline that would take water from north of Lemoore more than 13 miles south to the Blakeley Canal.

The Tulare Lake Canal Company sued Sandridge, controlled by John Vidovich, in January over the pipeline as it was about to cut through the canal, which crosses through Sandridge lands.

That initial trespass case spawned a second lawsuit in which Tulare Lake Canal Company alleged that because the Stratford Public Utilities District and Angiola Water District had some involvement in the pipeline, it was a public project that had skirted CEQA review. Private projects aren’t subject to CEQA.

Early in Friday’s proceeding, Chrissakis said she would likely find that Angiola would be dropped from the CEQA case because its board of directors had passed a resolution saying the district wouldn’t dedicate any resources to the pipeline. However, Chrissakis said, she would likely find that Stratford PUD should have determined if the pipeline was a project that required CEQA review, or was exempt, prior to granting Sandridge an easement on 380 feet of its land.

But those tentative findings were set aside as the court day ended while Chrissakis was still questioning attorney’s in the trespass case about whether Tulare Lake Canal Company’s rights extend beyond a simple easement over Sandridge’s land.

The parties will reconvene Monday at 1:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Boswell-Vidovich water war continues on several fronts.

Sandridge has sued Boswell for allegedly “buzzing” cattle on its lands with a large helicopter in retaliation for the Sandridge pipeline, according to that lawsuit. It will come before Chrissakis May 5.

But that’s not nearly the extent of the Boswell-Vidovich water war.

Vidovich has accused Boswell of selling off or transferring its State Water Project and Kings River supplies and 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 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.

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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