Kings County judge orders both sides to neutral corners in Boswell-Vidovich ditch bank battle

March 5, 2022
by Lois Henry
An excavator stands guard in February on the Tulare Lake Canal banks to prevent a pipeline, seen on the right, from being trenched beneath the ditch. A judge ordered the equipment be removed on March 4. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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Heavy equipment blockading a pipeline project from cutting through a canal was ordered removed on Friday and the pipeline project was halted temporarily by a Kings County Superior Court judge.

The fight between the Tulare Lake Canal Company, controlled by the J.G. Boswell Company, and Sandridge Partners, controlled by John Vidovich, will be back in court March 23 where Judge Valerie Chrissakis will decide whether the Sandridge pipeline is subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If so, it would mean the pipeline would have to undergo a full blown environmental impact report, including multiple public hearings.

So far, the 48-inch pipeline has been trenched and laid out from somewhere north of Lemoore more than 10 miles south near the community of Stratford on private land with no public notice or oversight. Typically, irrigation pipelines taking water from one portion of a farmer’s land to another don’t require permitting.

The trenching was blocked in late January by heavy equipment bearing the diamond “B”  Boswell logo after negotiations between Sandridge and Tulare Lake Canal Company stalled over an operating agreement. Sandridge has since installed “coffer dams” in the canal to dry a section in anticipation of cutting through the banks, but otherwise construction has stopped.

The project was ordered to remain in stasis until the issue comes back to court.

Judge Chrissakis found the potential involvement of two public entities, the Stratford Public Utilities District and Angiola Water District, could take the line out of the private realm and require a study of potential environmental impacts.

Sandridge has said in court filings it intends to include a smaller “sleeve” within its larger pipeline to potentially take sewage water from Stratford PUD.

Strafford PUD attorney Ray Carlson said during the hearing that the district had been in very preliminary talks with Sandridge about the future possibility of moving its wastewater through the pipeline.

“It’s a concept, at best,” he said.

To bring it to fruition the district would have to apply to the United States Department of Agriculture or California state revolving fund for money, then build a new treatment facility and construct a line to get its wastewater to the Sandridge line. Every step would require environmental oversight, permitting and public hearings.

None of that has been discussed yet, he stressed.

But a portion of the Sandridge pipeline has been laid on land owned by Stratford PUD, Chrissakis noted.

As for Angiola’s involvement, Chrissakis found a Jan. 17 letter to Tulare Lake Canal Company, in which Angiola says it will use the pipeline and indemnify the canal company for any damage from the pipeline, “highly relevant.”

Attorneys for Sandridge and Angiola argued the pipeline isn’t an Angiola project as it lies outside the district’s boundaries. Angiola also doesn’t own any water. It is an administrator, delivering supplies on direction of its landowners, such as Sandridge, said Sandridge attorney Marshall Whitney.

That struck Chrissakis as inconsistent.

“I’m at a loss to understand why Angiola would execute a hold harmless agreement, putting its funds at risk and opening the district to liability, but then says the pipeline isn’t on our property so it’s not our project,” Chrissakis said during Friday’s hearing.

Whitney said the letter wasn’t an actual agreement, but part of a back and forth between Sandridge and Tulare Lake Canal Company that was never accepted nor executed.

But the letter continued to intrigue Chrissakis.

“It shows something about the thought process that we don’t usually get to see,” she said, wondering if the letter is a kind of “smoking gun” that exposes the true intent of the pipeline as a public project that’s “being hidden.”

“It’s an unusual letter and I was surprised to see it,” Chrissakis added.

While the letter was “improvident,” attorney Whitney said, it certainly wasn’t any kind of “peak behind the curtain” maintaining it wasn’t an official indemnification by Angiola.

“This is privately owned water being moved on private land,” Whitney said, warning that requiring an irrigation pipeline to undergo CEQA review could impact irrigation projects on a wide scale throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Either way, Judge Chrissakis ordered the pipeline halted until she decides whether it should come under CEQA review at a March 23 hearing.

She also found that Tulare Lake Canal Company did not have the right under its easement to block the pipeline with heavy equipment and ordered the tractors off the canal banks.

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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