There’s a reason Matt Hurley wears so many hats, his critics say.
And he does wear a lot of hats:
General manager of Angiola Water District, Green Valley Water District and Deer Creek Storm Water District; chairman of the newly formed Tri-County Water Authority; and he’s a director on the Fresno Slough Water District and the W.H. Wilbur Reclamation District.
Hurley says it’s all about improving the water basin.
Uh-uh, say his detractors.
It’s so he can tie up as much groundwater as possible for his “boss,” John Vidovich, to pump out and sell to L.A.
“It’s a very tight-knit operation,” Tulare County farmer Milt Pace said of Hurley’s work on so many boards.
Pace, along with fellow farmer Jack Mitchell, is suing Angiola over what they say is an illegal attempt to take over the tiny Atwell Island Water District.
Hurley insists that’s not true.
And, no, Vidovich is not his boss, he says.
Another Angiola farmer, Pat McCarthy, called him to help with the district some years ago to quell tensions between Angiola and the Pixley and Lower Tule River irrigation districts.
"I was brought in to get rid of the 'Hatfields and McCoys' feuding," he said. "They were thinking we were bad guys, blaming us for a lot of things."
The result, he said, was a "cooperative agreement" established in 2013.
That is actually a legal settlement after the irrigation districts sued Angiola for overpumping groundwater.
As for Vidovich, Hurley said, of course they work together since Vidovich is the largest landowner in Angiola.
And, yes, they knew each other in law school and were in the same Naval Reserve program, but nothing more, Hurley said.
Though Hurley does seem to do an awful lot on Vidovich’s behalf.
Including taking over Green Valley and looking into the Consolidated People’s Ditch Company, which controls water attached to some land Vidovich bought in the Kaweah River area.
Oh, and Hurley also apparently brokered a land purchase in Angiola for Vidovich.
“I didn’t do that as the general manager of Angiola,” he said. “I did that as Matt Hurley. They are not tied together.”
All these suspicions are misplaced, Hurley said.
“Everything we’re doing is intended to help the water basins over which we sit,” he said, referring to Angiola as “we,” not Vidovich.
So, how’d Hurley get such a bad rap?
Atwell Island Water District is a tiny district in southern Tulare County historically controlled by a handful of local landowners.
Hurley said he got involved in the Atwell saga, “To bring a voice of reason to the board.”
He didn’t say what the board had done that was unreasonable.
Anyhow, Hurley felt so strongly about Atwell that he sold some land Angiola owned there to Doug Jackson and his sister Deanna Jackson so they could get on the Atwell board. Deanna Jackson also works at Angiola and even has her own parking space, designated by name.
Then Hurley got an Atwell area cattleman's proxy vote by leasing him some land at very low rates.
That was illegal, said elections attorneys at the Sutton Law Firm, hired by the Atwell board, on which Hurley critic Jack Mitchell is president.
No way, said Hurley, noting he’s an attorney and very well knows how to “dot my ‘Is” and cross my ‘Ts.’”
“They’re trying to say we were buying his vote, which is nonsense,” Hurley said. “I didn’t try and hide it. It was right there in the lease. The reason he had a very low lease rate is because he had to put up almost $100,000 in fencing.
“They try and make it sound like something dirty.”
After an election last fall that Pace and fellow farmer Nate Cameron say they won and the Jacksons say they didn’t, the Jacksons unilaterally moved Atwell’s headquarters into Angiola’s headquarters building in Corcoran. They also moved Atwell’s $167,000 to a new bank account.
Now two boards are running the little district and suits and counter-suits are pending.
Hurley chalks up Atwell's dislike of him to the fact that Jack Mitchell's son, Monte Mitchell, was his predecessor at Angiola.
ALPAUGH, BETTER LEFT ALONE
Then there’s the Alpaugh Irrigation District, which sits just north of Atwell.
Hurley said he stays out of Alpaugh because “they don’t like us meddling in their business.”
He said Alpaugh’s fear of newcomers borders on the irrational, noting that he was flatly rebuffed after offering the Alpaugh Community Services District clean drinking water from an Angiola well to replace its arsenic-laden water “because I’m not part of the ‘old guard.’”
Actually, the water Hurley offered came from an ag well, not a domestic one and he proposed giving one gallon in exchange for 15 to 20 gallons from Alpaugh’s well, said former Community Services District President Gary Gregory.
More recently, Hurley’s Tri-County Water Authority, a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA), filed a boundary notice with the state Department of Water Resources over already existing Alpaugh Irrigation District GSA boundaries.
The state doesn’t allow overlaps of GSAs, which are new agencies required to monitor groundwater per the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
The overlap means neither GSA is acceptable and the entire basin may be found out of compliance.
Meanwhile, Hurley also tried to get large sections of land removed from the Alpaugh Irrigation District but was mostly denied on June 14 by the Local Area Formation Commission.
Finally, Hurley has engendered even more qualms among water watchers with his actions regarding the Deer Creek Storm Water District.
Under his direction, about $400,000 in reserves held by Deer Creek was used in a legal battle to condemn 600 acres of land in southern Tulare County.
The landowners eventually agreed to a price of about $1.5 million, which Angiola will pay and then use those lands for possible future flood control/recharge, Hurley said.
Mitchell noted that much of that land already has federal easements allowing the government to flood it, so there was no need for Angiola to buy it for flood control.
Meanwhile, area farmers said, when Poso Creek flooded this past January, Deer Creek didn’t have the funds to hire crews to shore up levees.
Hurley said he had Angiola crews and equipment helping with flood control.
THE LONG WATER GAME
Observers like Pace, Mitchell and many others who didn’t want their names used for fear of retribution say each of Hurley’s moves has been calculated with a single goal: Pump more water for Vidovich.
Every acre Angiola gets control over can be retired and used to increase its pumping out of a well field in the Pixley Irrigation District, per that 2013 legal settlement.
And the Tri-County GSA will have authority to set pumping limits on a per acre basis, meaning the more land you own, the more water you can pump, which cuts out little guys like Pace and Mitchell.
Hurley objected to that viewpoint, saying everything he’s done has been totally above board and only toward improving the basin.
“I know the optics aren’t the best sometimes,” Hurley said. “When I look back, some things may look conspiratorial even when they weren’t.”