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How Will New Kings County Ordinance Impact Boswell-Vidovich Water War?

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A well owned by J.G. Boswell Farming gushes groundwater into a standpipe in Kings County in March 2021. (SJV Water/Lois Henry)
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A new groundwater ordinance approved on Tuesday 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.

Lois Henry

Lois Henry portrait

SJV Water

The ordinance states that anyone moving groundwater out of the county must get a permit. That includes groundwater pumped to replace surface supplies 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 overpumping to irrigate crops after selling off surface water supplies.

The Boswell-Vidovich Water War

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.

“It’s messy out there. We’re at loggerheads in Kings County right now.” — Kings County Supervisor Craig Pedersen

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 Tuesday’s board’s meeting. “We’re at loggerheads in Kings County right now.”

A Boswell excavator stands guard on the Tulare Lake Canal banks to prevent a Vidovich pipeline, seen on the right, from being trenched beneath the ditch in January 2022. (SJV Water/Lois Henry)

Ordinance Passes on 3-2 Vote

Kings was among the last counties in the San Joaquin Valley without any regulation on the movement of its native groundwater.

That changed when the board voted 3-2 to approve the groundwater permit ordinance.

The ordinance faced strong 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 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 Supervisor Doug Verboon both blamed most of Kings’ water problems on state policies that have restricted water imports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Water Sometimes More Valuable Than Crops

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 overpumping 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.

Need to Know Where Water Is Going

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 on Dec. 29.

About SJV Water

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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