The first well on the Pope farm was drilled in 1938, the year Duane Pope's grandfather built a house on the broad, flat plains near Wiggins.

The family grew corn, wheat, pinto beans and other crops on the land that for a long time was hardly a speck on the map, a little chunk of rural Colorado far from cities and all the problems that accompany them.

A second well was sunk deep into the aquifer in 1951, and over the years the little farm grew to 350 acres of grains and vegetables, enough to earn the Popes the nickname of the "Pepper People" at farmers markets along the Front Range.

Duane and Susan Pope put 80 acres of land into vegetables after they bought the farm from Duane's dad in 1982. The purchase price for the land was based on its value as irrigated farmland, which is about 10 times that of dryland farming acreage. Determined to protect the land, they carefully rotated crops and worked hard to develop more markets for their produce.

They even bought several trailers and chile roasters to add value to the 50 varieties of peppers they sold in Longmont, Greeley, Denver, Fort Collins and Loveland, and soon they had a loyal following. For advocates of the burgeoning sustainable-food movement - which encourages buying foods grown within 100 miles of home - the Popes and other farmers like them were like family friends.

This year likely will bring an end to Pope Farms Produce. They've been ordered to stop pumping water from their wells. They're done.

"I don't know the whole gist of it," said Susan Pope, referring to the web of mind-numbing water laws that have pushed farms across the region to the brink of bankruptcy. "Everybody was pumping wells, no problem, until a study came out in 1969 that said well usage was harming returning flows to the South Platte River."

Officially, that was the beginning of the end.

A network of conservation districts was formed, charging farmers yearly fees to help them manage the water resources and to represent them in court. Tom Cech, executive director of one of them, the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, said "hundreds of millions" have been spent trying to resolve legal challenges over water rights in the state.

One dispute involving Sakata and Petrocco farms is being heard in District 1 Water Court in Greeley.

At its most basic, state law allocates water rights based on seniority. So even though the Popes' well dates to 1938 when Colorado was offering incentives for farmers to settle in the area and encouraging them to drill irrigation wells, it can't compete with the big kahunas in the water-rights game. Boulder, Greeley, Denver and others secured their place in line for the tap back in the late 1800s.

"We're in a crisis here," Susan Pope said.

The planting season is approaching and the Popes still have no access to water - except from rain. They face the prospect of trying to get by on dryland farming alone or getting jobs in the city.

Farmers from Denver to Julesburg who are dependent on wells are at risk of defaulting on their mortgages and abandoning their farms. The ripple effect on rural school districts, rural economies and consumers of local produce will soon follow.

"It's terrible to watch," Cech said. "The farm families are sitting in court, listening to lawyers argue over water rights while the fate of the livelihoods they've known for generations hangs in the balance. Their faces tell the story."

While several years of drought have created a growing awareness of the limits of the state's water resources, Cech said the 19th-century water laws do little to encourage meaningful conservation. "The system does not lend itself to efficient use overall."

If a water district with senior rights wants to pump to excess to irrigate golf courses and suburban lawns at the expense of farmers, there's nothing in the law to prevent it.

"Few people understand the implications of that," Susan Pope said.

Even fewer bother to care.

Diane Carman's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at 303-954-1489 or