Latest allegation in Boswell-Vidovich ditch bank battle: Environmental laws were willfully ignored

February 27, 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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Last we left off, Kings County’s two biggest farming companies were at impasse over a pipeline with heavy equipment and work crews standing guard atop the Tulare Lake Canal to keep a trench from being cut through its banks.

Attorneys for the Tulare Lake Canal Company, controlled by the giant J.G. Boswell Company, and Sandridge Partners, controlled by John Vidovich, filed a blizzard of court actions alleging the other was trespassing and seeking injunctions to make them stop.

Then Tulare Lake Canal Company’s attorney Leonard Herr tossed in a grenade – Sandridge pipeline proponents knowingly violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), according to a writ he filed Feb. 16.

Because the pipeline has the potential to take sewage from the Stratford Public Utilities District and the Angiola Water District intends to move water in the line, that makes it a public project, the writ alleges. Once something is a public project, it has to comply with all the reporting, public notice and environmental impact investigations required under CEQA.

Private projects that don’t require permits aren’t subject to CEQA. Kings County doesn’t issue permits for water pipelines on private land so the Sandridge pipeline hasn’t come under public scrutiny.

There have been no formal agreements with the Stratford PUD about taking the town’s effluent, but Sandridge intends to put a “sleeve” in the 48-inch pipeline to possibly take wastewater from Stratford in the future, according to a declaration by Sandridge’s farm manager.  Angiola’s general manager filed a declaration saying his district also intends to move water in the line.

Herr contends those statements make the pipeline a public project and Sandridge knew it should come under CEQA rules.

The defendants “and other co-conspirators took the effort to keep Project secret because they knew Project would cause environmental harm, such as lowering the water in the area, ground subsidence, illegally transporting surface water out of the area and illegal discharge of human waste,” the writ alleges.

Herr has repeatedly asked what water will be moved in the line and where it will end up. Questions Sandridge attorney Marshall Whitney has said are irrelevant.

“Where my client plans to use the water has no bearing on the trespass issue,” he said Friday during a hearing on a second attempt by Sandridge to get the heavy equipment moved off the canal under a temporary restraining order.

Kings County Superior Court Judge Valerie Chrissakis denied the request saying Sandridge had failed, again, to show it would suffer irreparable harm in the time it would take for her to hear the larger issues. Those issues, the competing injunction requests and now the CEQA allegation, are set for March 4 at 1:30 p.m.

Though she denied Sandridge’s request to move the equipment off the canal banks, Chrissakis also exacted a promise from Herr that the Tulare Lake Canal Company wouldn’t start running water through the canal before she decides on the injunction requests.

While this fight is ostensibly over a construction project, water is the real beef between Boswell and Vidovich.

The two agricultural giants have both accused the other of improper water use on a number of fronts, this is just the latest.

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