Kings Co. wants to block selling groundwater to Southern California. Will a new measure solve the problem?

Kings County Supervisors took a crack at a long-promised push to restrict the ability of swashbuckling Kings County farming giants to sell their groundwater to far-flung southern California locales.

Kings County Supervisors took a crack at a long-promised push to restrict the ability of swashbuckling Kings County farming giants to sell their groundwater to far-flung southern California locales.

Tuesday, the Kings County Board of Supervisors approved the Groundwater Export Ordinance, which was initially conceived to reign-in major water players in the area from dumping

Instead, based on lingering commentary from local farmers, it may only create additional red tape with the lack of teeth necessary to stop outsiders from buying up water rights for the express purpose of selling the resources to Southern California water agencies.

The issue became of particular interest for farmers in the area when John Vidovich, the owner of ag firm Sandridge Partners, launched construction on a sprawling, massive pipeline network at the southern end of the county, sparking fears of possible water movement out of Kings County. It also kicked off a year-long legal spat.

The battle between Vidovich’s Sandridge Partners and the Tulare Lake Canal Company, largely controlled by Kings County’s other major water player – the J.G. Boswell Company reignited a longstanding debate to regulate the movement of groundwater.

The ordinance passed by a 3-2 vote. Supervisors Joe Neves and Richard Fagundes cast dissenting votes and did not state their reasons for being opposed.

However, much of the opposition vocalized by local farmers stemmed from the seemingly hurried nature of the measure and a lack of ability to reign in farmers, like Vidovich or Boswell, from moving groundwater out of the area.

Many local water experts contend that Vidovich, who has indicated his focus on utilizing the under-construction pipeline to move groundwater within Kings County, could convert his Kings County-based groundwater into surface water in the Dudley Ridge Water District and sell it outside of the county.

It’s a concept that has been noted in other spaces, including in the latest book from Mark Arax, The Dreamt Land, requiring the utilization of third-party pipelines in Kern County.

For their part, the three supervisors who pushed the ordinance through all spoke of the various water issues facing the region and the importance of keeping all groundwater local. 

Supervisor Doug Verboon acknowledged the high monetary value of water – even being more than various crops – which could entice people to sell it to other water users across the state. 

“You get an opportunity to sell your groundwater, you’re going to do it,” Verboon said. “It does not make any sense to farm a crop when you can farm the water. We want to take that temptation away. Surface water supplies have decreased dramatically, probably double, triple in the last 10 years. That’s very important to us to have all that surface water here, if possible, to keep your ground alive.” 

Outgoing Supervisor Craig Pedersen said no one knows exactly how much water is leaving Kings County, which necessitates this ordinance to keep the water local. 

“What’s Kings County known for? Well we have the highest subsidence rates in the state. We’re a big target. We hear it all the time. We’ve been approached by state leaders. We push back with every ounce of information that we have, but this is one area where we don’t have that information. Not going to paint this with sugar because it’s going to be difficult to find that information,” Pedersen said. 

“But I think for this county, it’s important to have that information. It’s important to know where that water’s going and why. I can’t, as a leader in this community, put my head in the sand and say ‘I don’t know.’ I need to know for every resident in this county. So it’s not to attack an agricultural industry or to change direction of flows of water, but it’s the ultimate responsibility of this board to look at these issues and to have those answers.” 

Supervisor Richard Valle called back to a press conference he attended in Sacramento more than a decade ago with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling for more water for Kings County and the Central Valley. 

Yet as the press conference wrapped up national news reports came out regarding major water sales from Kings County to Southern California, making his ask look hypocritical. 

“I’m going back to ‘09 and that first fight for water and being all in, and then coming back to this new drought – it was hard for me to get back in and say 10 years later, ‘Well we ought to go to Sacramento. We’ve got to fight for water.’ You know why? Because honestly I’m tired of that,” Valle said. 

“I’m tired of hearing any candidate who runs for office saying, ‘Vote me in and I will fight for water.’ OK, well there’s been a lot of elections between that time, members of Congress, Senators, Assembly, and guess what? Ain’t a damn thing changed. When I campaigned in ‘08 I said I’m going to fight for water, and to me a yes vote on this ordinance here is keeping my promise to the people who elected me, because that’s a fight for water.”

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