U.S. Water News Online
DENVER -- To the Colorado farmers who had their irrigation
wells shut down this year, Veronica Sperling is the Wicked Witch of
the West who killed their crops so thirsty communities and greedy
competitors can drive them out of business and get their water cheap.
To the farmers farther down the South Platte River who blame the
wells for sucking their farms dry the past three years, Sperling is a
savior helping them get precious lifeblood for their livelihood.
Sperling is a water attorney who represents Boulder and
Centennial, two bustling cities hungry for water. She is unapologetic
about her battle with well owners, saying she's caught in a fight
between people who get water from the South Platte against well
owners who came late to Colorado's water wars.
To Sperling, communities have gotten a bad rap for taking legal
action to shut down the farmers' wells. She said communities and
farmers who have senior water rights risk losing their water if they
don't fight back.
Plus, she said, farmers have been willing to sell their water
"All of those water rights are transactions between willing buyers
and willing sellers," she said. "If the agricultural community
doesn't want to sell their water rights to cities they should just
stop doing it."
The battle over water in northeastern Colorado got ugly this year
after the state engineer shut down 440 wells in May, a blow affecting
some 30,000 acres of farmland in Weld, Morgan and Adams counties.
Farmers relying on the wells said the move will cost them millions
and force some into bankruptcy. The engineer said he had no choice
because well owners had not come up with viable plans to restore the
water they used to the groundwater that feeds the South Platte.
Behind the fight were farmers and cities that depend on surface
water from the South Platte, including Boulder, Centennial, Highlands
Ranch and Sterling. State water law guarantees that those with
higher-priority rights get their share first.
John Monheiser, who has 1,800 irrigated acres and has a senior
right from the South Platte dating to 1895, said his farm near the
town of Crook got the water it was entitled to this season for the
first time in years. He said Sperling deserves credit for saving
thousands of farms.
"I call her a savior," he said.
There was almost a deal to help about 200 well-dependent farmers.
Under the plan, a number of Front Range cities had agreed to bring in
more water from the Western Slope, freeing up water for the farms.
The deal fell through when Boulder, Highlands Ranch and Sterling
and some farmers rejected the plan, saying it could hurt the river in
the long term. They feared allowing the farmers to pump from wells
this year would drain the shallow aquifer that supplies both the
wells and river and lead to trouble over the next few years.
To Sperling, a state law passed in 1969 that protects surface
water owners from well owners is working even though it could force
some farmers out of business.
People forget that other farmers watched their crops dry up when
the water they were entitled to didn't make it downstream, she said.
And communities counting on their share had to go to court against
the well owners.
"The city of Boulder is not going to be in a position to choose
junior water rights over senior water rights. What they want is for
the law as it has existed since 1969 to be enforced," she said.
Tom Cech manages the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District,
which oversees the 440 wells that were ordered shut down. He said
Sperling is a formidable foe who sparks fear in farmers on the
Farmers who relied on wells for their crops have already been
forced to sell their farms because they didn't have enough water, he
said, and more are expected to declare bankruptcy by the end of this
year. Cech disagreed with Sperling's assertion that the sales were
"The fact that these wells were shut off has caused people to lose
their farms," he said. "More people are losing their farms and their
Sperling said there was no conspiracy to drive down the price of
water by forcing farmers out of business. She said the city of
Boulder, one of her clients, has not bought a new water right in 20
She said it's no secret that her clients in booming Douglas
County, south of Denver, are looking for more water.
"We're not trying to do anything behind anybody's back and drive
people out of business so we can get their water rights," she said.
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