Kings County passes law to keep its groundwater from being sold beyond its borders

November 29, 2022
by Lois Henry
A well owned by the J.G. Boswell Farming Company gushes groundwater into a standpipe in Kings County. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

Water war

A new groundwater ordinance approved Nov. 29 by the Kings County Board of Supervisors could put the county in the middle of a water war being waged by its two largest farming entities, the J.G. Boswell Farming Company and Sandridge Partners, controlled by John Vidovich.

The ordinance states that anyone moving groundwater out of the county must get a permit. That includes groundwater pumped to replace surface supplies being exported from Kings County.

Both tenets could affect operations by Boswell and Vidovich, according to accusations the two have been casting at one another for the past few years.

Boswell claims Vidovich is moving groundwater via pipelines to unknown destinations.

Vidovich says Boswell is over pumping to irrigate crops after selling off its surface water supplies.

The entities are engaged in several legal battles over water, including one involving a 48-inch pipeline that Vidovich has been trying to build from near Lemoore south to the Blakeley Canal. The pipeline had to cross under the Tulare Lake Canal, controlled by Boswell. Construction was halted last spring when Boswell parked bulldozers and other heavy equipment on the canal banks to block trenching. That case is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, the Boswell-Vidovich fight tanked the region’s joint groundwater sustainability plan filed with the Department of Water Resources in July.

The five groundwater sustainability agencies involved in the plan had to coordinate. Except at the last minute the Southwest Kings GSA, controlled by Vidovich, inserted a sentence saying all the GSAs would work “to prevent the inefficient storage of groundwater in shallow basins.”

That was aimed at what Vidovich has called Boswell’s “abuse” of the aquifer and none of the other GSAs included that language.

DWR deemed the plan “inadequate” in October.

“It’s messy out there,” said Kings County Supervisor Craig Pedersen at the board’s Nov. 29 meeting. “We’re at loggerheads in Kings County right now.”

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In an attempt to stop groundwater from being mined and sold beyond its borders, the Kings County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance Nov. 29 that will require anyone moving groundwater outside of Kings to get a permit.

That includes groundwater pumped to backfill for surface supplies that farmers or water districts export out of the area, according to the ordinance.

One area farmer, who opposed the ordinance as unnecessary regulation, said it is clearly aimed at two of the county’s largest farming entities.

“This is a political fight between two individuals and the whole county doesn’t need to be drug into their fight,” said Ceil Howe Jr., with Westlake Farms

He referred to the J.G Boswell Farming Company and Sandridge Partners, controlled by John Vidovich. The two have been locked in a series of battles over water. Most recently the state rejected the region’s groundwater plan after Vidovich inserted language in one chapter of  the plan that attacked the practice of storing groundwater in shallow basins, something he’s often accused Boswell of doing.

Boswell, meanwhile, has accused Vidovich of mining and moving groundwater to unknown destinations and has sued to block a 48-inch pipeline being built by Vidovich.

Kings is among the last San Joaquin Valley counties to adopt some kind of groundwater protection measure. And while some speakers at the Nov. 29 meeting suggested the ordinance needed more time and vetting, Supervisor Doug Verboon said it should come as no surprise.

He’s has been trying for more than 11 years to pass a groundwater protection measure with no success.

Still, the ordinance faced opposition from most of the county’s largest water districts and supervisors took pains at the meeting to explain their reasoning.

“When you look at water management in California, it’s a frickin’ train wreck,” said Supervisor Craig Pedersen. “Everyone in this room who’s a farmer knows it’s a race to the bottom. From my standpoint, it’s unacceptable for this board not to take a leadership role and say we’re not going to allow that.”

Pedersen and Verboon both blamed most of Kings’ water problems on state policies that have restricted water imports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

But Verboon also noted there’s a strong monetary incentive for exporting water out of Kings.

“In 2011, I met with farmers on the westside about a groundwater export ordinance and they were against it. Why?” he asked. Looking at the price of almonds and other produce versus the high price of water, he continued, “That’s when I realized there may be groundwater leaving Kings County.”

The county had to step in and remove that monetary temptation, Verboon said.

Supervisor Richard Valle, who represents the town of Corcoran, said residents there have been heavily impacted by over pumping that has caused the entire town to sink, including a levee that had to be rebuilt at their expense in 2017.

“People corner you in the supermarket and want to know what the hell’s going on,” he said.

That massive subsidence caused by overpumping has put a “target” on the county’s back by state regulators, Pedersen added.

“We try to push back but this is one area we don’t have information,” he said. “We need to know where the water is going and why.”

For Verboon, the issue was simple. Groundwater supports agriculture and ag pays the taxes that provide services to the residents of Kings County.

“We need to protect our groundwater at all costs from here on out,” he said.

Supervisors Joe Neves and Richard Fagundes, who voted against the ordinance, did not comment during the meeting.

The new ordinance goes into effect Dec. 29.

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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