When you first meet John Vidovich, everything from his ball cap to his dirty boots tells you he’s a farmer.
He certainly looks the part in his well-worn jeans and checkered shirts.
But this outwardly unassuming multimillionaire has become a lightning rod of controversy.
Because, while he does farm thousands of acres of pistachios, almonds and grapes, many believe the only harvest Vidovich is truly interested in is water.
Water that he will take, critics fear, and eventually sell to Southern California cities.
In fact, his detractors call him the single greatest threat to Central Valley farming ever to come down the pike.
Not a chance. No way, according to Vidovich and his longtime associates.
First of all, the myriad laws and rules that govern water wouldn’t allow that to happen, they say.
Second, “I’m a farmer,” Vidovich says. “And I want to keep farming.”
The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between.
What is indisputable is that over the past 20-plus years, Vidovich has quietly amassed more than 100,000 acres in the Central Valley, gaining footholds on numerous water boards, which has given him control over vast amounts of groundwater — the valley’s lifeblood.
Now, he’s involved in a project that could set him up as a water marketer on an extreme scale.
Observers worry that Vidovich plans to pump Kings and Tulare counties dry, park that water in Kern County and then sell it to the highest bidder in dry years, leaving a once-thriving farm district barren.
If their fears come true, the Los Angeles water grab in Owens Valley would pale in comparison.
And one Kern County water district could be the linchpin to it all.
DEATH STAR OR SMART WATER PROJECT?
Semitropic Water Storage District, in northwestern Kern, has raised a lot of eyebrows with its ambitious, some say audacious, Tulare Lake Storage and Floodwater Protection Project.
The project would consist of a small reservoir, more like short-term storage “cells,” along the California Aqueduct just north of Kettleman City where floodwater off the south fork of the Kings River would be captured.
That water would then be moved south through the aqueduct and banked in Semitropic.
It’s a $500 million project, of which Semitropic is hoping to get $250 million from Proposition 1 funding.
Proposition 1 is a $7 billion bond passed in 2014 that would pay for a host of projects from flood control to water quality. It specifically set aside $2.7 billion for water storage projects.
In exchange, the state would get banking rights in Semitropic, said General Manager Jason Gianquinto.
The idea of capturing Kings River floodwaters isn’t new. But Semitropic is the first district to get this close to making it a reality.
The Kings is as erratic a river as the Kern so floodwaters are unpredictable.
But when the Kings does flood, as it's doing now, millions of acre feet rush north to join up with the San Joaquin River and empty into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Often an equal amount of water splits south, wreaking havoc on farmland in the old Tulare Lake bottom, about 60 miles northwest of Bakersfield.
So, capturing that south fork floodwater would benefit both Kings and Kern county farmers, according to Semitropic's Gianquinto.
Except when you plug John Vidovich’s name into the equation.
He owns the land next to the aqueduct where the reservoir would be built and is the one who brought the floodwater project idea to Semitropic a few years ago.
The district has already paid him $40 million for an easement, or right of way, on that land and signed an agreement with him for how the project would operate.
Though the project is billed as flood control, the agreement also allows Vidovich to move groundwater.
Groundwater and floodwater are two very different things.
Floodwater is considered a nuisance, a menace even. Once a river is at flood stage, that usually means all other rights have been filled and the overflow is free game.
Groundwater is much trickier.
There are often laws binding it to a basin.
And it’s that groundwater part of Semitropic’s agreement with Vidovich that is raising hackles along with eyebrows.
Exactly what groundwater would be moved? Kings and Tulare farmers and water managers want to know.
How would it be monitored?
And what’s the end game of moving that water?
Gianquinto and Vidovich have repeatedly said that it would be nearly impossible for an individual to use state facilities to create a private water market using any water, let alone groundwater.
Even if he has access to the California Aqueduct, Vidovich would have to jump through a lot of state hoops to move water independently of Semitropic.
It would involve a public permitting process and be very difficult, not to mention expensive, both men said.
When pressed, though, they acknowledged it could be done.
MEET JOHN VIDOVICH
Before we go much further, you should probably know a little more about Vidovich.
He’s a 61-year-old developer who grew up on a farm in Sunnyvale in the heart of what would become the Silicon Valley.
His father, Stephen Vidovich, formed De Anza Properties and helped develop the valley.
John Vidovich, ultimately, followed in his father’s footsteps after obtaining a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law.
He recalled bidding on a construction project while studying for the bar exam.
“It was kind of a crutch in case I flunked,” he said. “You know so I could say, ‘Well, I didn’t pass because I was so busy with this project.’”
But he did pass and was admitted to the bar in 1980 at the age of 24. His law license is “inactive,” according to the California State Bar Association website.
He became more involved with De Anza, working with his dad, whom he describes as “bigger than life.”
That shadow drove him to work hard in an effort to “be useful” to De Anza.
While he was just starting out, he also enlisted in the Navy and served in the reserves for six or eight years, he can’t recall the exact term.
He was in military intelligence and had a top secret clearance that involved gathering data and evaluating products they made, he said.
“I’m actually not supposed to talk about it.”
When asked if he applies the skills he learned in his military intelligence training to his life today, he answers that we all use the things we learn through life.
Stephen Vidovich retired but kept a watchful eye on the company, getting daily reports and giving advice, John Vidovich told the San Jose Mercury News after his father’s death.
Stephen Vidovich died in 2007, at the age of 81, driving a tractor near one of his remaining vineyards.
“He made friends everywhere he went,” John Vidovich told the Mercury News in 2007. “There’s a lot of people who don’t like me, but nobody didn’t like my dad.”
Vidovich continues to run De Anza and in a surprisingly hands-on manner.
He ran, unsuccessfully for city council in his hometown of Los Altos Hills in 2006. And he served two terms on the Santa Clara County Planning Commission, appointed once in 1990 and he again in 2010, igniting controversy among activists concerned about sprawl.
More recently, he filed a voter initiative in 2016 to allow a 48-foot-tall hotel after the Cupertino City Council shot down a De Anza proposal for building a 105-foot-tall hotel in the western Santa Clara Valley town.
"It got to a point where the only way we could get an approval was to go to the voters," he told the Silicon Valley Business Journal hours after filing the initiative paperwork in April 2016.
The city sued. A judge found this past March that the initiative was flawed because Vidovich used his own project description instead of the “neutral” description by the Cupertino city attorney.
Vidovich shrugged it off, saying the flaw amounted to putting the descriptions on the wrong pages and quickly appealed.
If those seem like minute details for the head of a major development company to trouble with, he’s even more hands-on with Sandridge Partners LP, the family business he formed for farming acquisitions.
He’s so involved, in fact, he even chairs the monthly meetings for Buena Vista Water Storage District where Sandridge owns thousands of acres.
“I run a very tight meeting,” he said.
Indeed, as president of the board, Vidovich has a great deal of influence in directing much of the water district’s business.
Under his leadership, Buena Vista has installed a pipeline system to reduce reliance on canals, which lose a lot of water to seepage and the district has become extremely active in buying up land for water banking.
Vidovich has been buying land in the Central Valley for more than 20 years.
He said he bought his first parcel here in 1994 when he invested in a foreclosed property in Kings County.
He started buying consistently in Kern, Kings and Tulare counties throughout the early and mid-2000s and continues to add properties sometimes at a blistering pace.
Between March and May of this year, 25 new sales were recorded in Kern alone, according to ParcelQuest, a web service that tracks real estate deals by county.
Through Sandridge, Vidovich owns about 130,000 acres with 38,500 acres in Kern, 82,000 acres in Kings, 9,500 acres in Tulare and 300 acres in Fresno county, per ParcelQuest. (Vidovich said he didn’t think Sandridge had hit 100,000 acres, total, yet.)
Those figures don’t include recent land purchases he’s made in the Kern Delta Water District and Fresno Irrigation District — both areas Sandridge is targeting for even more land purchases because of its solid rights to the Kern and San Joaquin rivers.
“I’ve learned that I have to be diversified in my water,” Vidovich said.
At this point, he said, he uses about 30 percent of his land for farming and 70 percent for water.
Understanding water, water rights and the often complex structures of water districts has become a Vidovich hallmark.
A skill his detractors say he’s used to maneuver water away from its rightful place to his own benefit.
A STINK THAT LINGERS
Vidovich says the animus against him goes back to his 2009 sale of State Water Project (SWP) contract rights tied to land he owned in the Dudley Ridge Water District in Kings County.
He sold rights to more than 14,000 acre feet a year to the Mojave Water Agency in San Bernardino County for a headline-grabbing $73 million.
It was a permanent water loss for Kings County and put Vidovich under a lingering cloud of suspicion among area farmers and water managers.
“I did sell water out of Kings County to an urban user and people didn’t like it,” Vidovich said. “At the time, I was heavy with state water but the state water had low allocations and I had no other water source over there (Dudley Ridge land in western Kings County).”
Looking back, he said he wouldn’t make that sale today.
But “that money enabled me to go into Angiola (a water district in Tulare County) and have other water sources.”
Vidovich used the $73 million in 2010 to buy nearly 75 percent of the land in the Angiola Water District.
It should be noted here that Angiola’s general manager is Matthew Hurley.
Hurley and Vidovich go way back.
They went to law school together and joined the same program in the Navy reserves.
Though Vidovich describes them as simply having known each other at school, others in Tulare and Kings water circles say Hurley is Vidovich’s right-hand man — some say henchman.
In any event, Vidovich fallowed his Angiola land and took its groundwater about 25 miles west to his Dudley Ridge lands.
At one point, he was moving nearly 30,000 acre feet a year, according to Angiola’s records.
Other water districts contended it was much more.
Satellite images from NASA show the area around the well fields Angiola was pulling from is the epicenter for land subsidence in eastern Tulare County from overpumping.
Vidovich isn't the only pumper in that area, his supporters note. The giant J.G. Boswell farming company pumps there too.
Yes, critics agree, but Boswell uses that water to irrigate in the district. Their concern is where Vidovich is taking the groundwater.
Vidovich says he uses that Angiola groundwater to farm in Dudley Ridge, so the groundwater isn't leaving its home basin.
Though he also acknowledged that during the drought he sold some to fellow Dudley Ridge landowner Stewart Resnick, who owns the massive Wonderful Company.
Resnick also has lands just south of the Kings/Kern county line in Lost Hills and many of Vidovich’s detractors believe that’s where a lot of that Angiola groundwater is going.
They point to three new pump stations along Angiola’s main canal just north of the county line that have the ability to move 100,000 acre feet a year into pipes that head south and west.
Whether those pipes end on Vidovich lands or Resnick’s is hard to know.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
One of Angiola’s main well fields is actually inside the Pixley Irrigation District boundaries where water managers were concerned by the amount of water leaving their district.
Angiola was rehabbing old wells, drilling new ones and installed a large pipeline.
That was the last straw for Pixley, which sued in 2013.
Angiola was ordered to stop pumping and eventually the districts came to a settlement.
Angiola agreed not to pump more than 36,000 acre feet a year, or more than 130,000 acre feet in any consecutive five-year period. It agreed to pay Pixley/Lower Tule $240,000 a year to bring in federal water to recharge the groundwater.
And, importantly, Angiola promised not to take the groundwater outside of Tulare or Kings counties or allow any of its landowners to do so.
That means Vidovich.
WAY OUT FRONT
Yes, locals have a bad taste in their mouths from Vidovich’s water moves, I was told by several people, many of whom said they were too afraid of retaliation to use their names.
Vidovich is, after all, a powerful landowner in the Central Valley.
But farmers Jack Mitchell and Milt Pace are upfront about their distaste for Vidovich and especially Hurley.
They are suing Angiola for what they say was Hurley’s illegal takeover of the tiny Atwell Island Water District. (See sidebar online.)
Every move Vidovich has made, through Hurley and other public water districts, has been about gaining control of water, they say.
“He’s serious about taking water out of this valley,” Pace said.
It’s happened before, he said, up in Green Valley, which is west of Interstate 5 and a few miles north of the Kern County line.
Pace farmed in the valley and partnered with Vidovich for a while.
“The only water Green Valley got was some surplus state water and natural groundwater,” Pace said.
After Vidovich sold his Dudley Ridge state water, Pace said he drilled several wells in Green Valley, built a pipeline across I-5 and took the valley’s groundwater to keep his Dudley Ridge trees alive.
Now, Pace said, Vidovich will do the same thing on a larger scale by moving Kings and Tulare groundwater to Kern County.
“He does enough farming in the area to make it look like he’s a farmer. But it’s just a cover for taking water out,” Pace said.
Hurley, who also serves as general manager of Green Valley, said that basin, which is separate from the Tulare Lake basin, is actually in balance.
Vidovich freely admits that most of his land is for water rights. With water from the delta becoming more unreliable, he said, farmers have to hoard land for the groundwater. It's just smart business.
Pace gave a nod to Vidovich on that count.
“His operation is extensive and very smart.”
Mitchell agreed, giving Vidovich credit for seeing where groundwater laws were headed before anyone else.
“They’ve (Vidovich and Hurley) been way out front on SGMA,” Mitchell said.
SGMA refers to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014 that mandates water basins be in balance by 2040. To do that, the state requires each area to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to account for what’s going in and coming out of the aquifer. The GSAs are supposed to set pumping limits to stop overdraft.
Numbers haven’t been set in stone just yet, but it’s looking like the Kings/Tulare farming areas will settle somewhere near allowing 1.5 acre feet of water to be pumped per acre.
“Vidovich is gobbling up all the parcels he can so he can keep on pumping,” Mitchell said.
By locking up the land, he said, Vidovich will be able to deny smaller farmers like him and Pace the water they need for their own operations.
Both men saw Hurley’s involvement in numerous local districts including Angiola, Deer Creek Storm Water District, Green Valley Water District and the Tri-County Water Authority, a newly formed GSA, as more Vidovich control.
“They just do what they want and you have to sue to stop ‘em,” Mitchell said.
ALWAYS ABOUT THE WATER
First off, Hurley said, he’s not Vidovich’s henchman.
He was semi-retired living in Clovis when another Kings County farmer, Pat McCarthy — not Vidovich — called him to do some work for Angiola.
He came on board full-time in 2011, give or take, he said.
“There’s a mythology out there that Angiola is stealing water,” he said. “I understand the fear, but it’s not based on reason.”
Number one, the settlement agreement between Angiola and Lower Tule/Pixley irrigation districts won’t allow Angiola or Sandridge to move the water out of Kings County.
Number two, Angiola is trying to maintain the local aquifer by retiring land to limit pumping.
Number three, water from Angiola can’t physically get to Semitropic’s proposed storage cells.
True, Angiola’s canal stops about 23 miles southeast of the project.
But a pipeline, which Vidovich is allowed to build under the Semitropic agreement, could span that distance.
In fact, Vidovich frequently moves water by pipeline, Pace said, pointing to a massive line Vidovich installed that appears to take Angiola groundwater through his Dudley Ridge lands.
Besides, Pace and others say, overreaching is another Vidovich hallmark.
Vidovich and a co-defendant were found guilty in 2014 of conspiracy to breach a land sale contract and ordered to pay nearly $130 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
The punitive damage portion, about $73 million, was overturned on appeal and the case has been sent back to Kings County.
But the appellate court still found Vidovich liable and he could still have to pay out a major amount.
At issue? About 25,000 acre feet of groundwater.
THE NAT GEO QUOTE
Then there was the “nail in the coffin” for folks like Pace and Mitchell when Vidovich appeared in a National Geographic film called “Water and Power: A California Heist,” which ran in mid-March and again on June 25.
In it, Vidovich says:
“My business approach right now is to acquire as much water as I can to be diversified in water. And, you know, at some point in time that water is in risk of going to an urban area.
“Because the urban places would pay a hell of a lot of money for it.
“So, if i can’t make money on that water farming, I will sell it eventually to an urban area and that’s a right I have.
“If they pass a law saying I can’t sell it, then I can’t sell it. But that’s the way it is.
Vidovich says his quote was clipped and sewn back together to make it sound bad.
“I don’t believe we should be sending water to LA,” he said. “Absolutely not. Even if I were to move water and sell it, it would be to farming operations.”
'JEALOUSY AND INNUENDO'
Longtime friend and associate Ted Page defended Vidovich’s operations.
“The biggest misconception about John is that he wants to sell water to LA,” he said. “It’s not true, he wants to farm.”
Page met Vidovich in 2005 when Page was farming 400 acres out near Wasco.
Vidovich made an offer on the land and Page took it.
Vidovich later made an offer for Page to come work for him as a consultant or, as Page says in his slow drawl, his “fireman…’cause I put out fires.”
Page had been a longtime board member of the Semitropic Water District and Vidovich wanted that kind of expertise.
Later, Page would run for and win a seat on the Kern County Water Agency board. He’s now the president of that powerful panel.
Page said Vidovich is a tough businessman but that’s all.
As for making a major water grab in the Central Valley, Page said Vidovich has nothing on the Wonderful or JG Boswell companies, both of which have far larger land holdings than Vidovich.
“Yeah, he’s got a lot of money and he’s been buying up land, makes some people nervous,” Page said.
But out in the Buena Vista Water Storage District where Vidovich chairs the board, his original detractors all love him, Page said.
“He paid ’em three times what anyone else would’ve for their land and now they’re all gettin’ water because of his policies,” Page said. “All the rest of that stuff ... it’s just jealousy and innuendo, jealousy and innuendo, jealousy and innuendo.”
Vidovich, he said, is just the new water baron on the block, that’s all.