He is a lifelong wheat farmer with an eighth-grade education. He files his legal documents in a cardboard fruit crate labeled "Pears Net Wt. 9 lbs." One of his lawyers is a self-described "country hick" and the other is fresh out of Creighton Law School in Omaha.
Yet Joy Sporhase, who says he is "proud to live in a country where you can go straight to the top," singlehandedly has shaken much of the West, upsetting the precarious legal system that guards the region's most precious resource: water.
All he wanted was to irrigate his Colorado corn and bean fields with water from his well just over the state line in Nebraska.
But nothing concerning water in the West is quite so simple. Sporhase stumbled onto a Nebraska law banning the shipment of underground water into Colorado. He fought it all the way to the Supreme Court. On July 2, he won.
Now Sporhase v. Nebraska has grown into something greater than one farmer's fight to irrigate his land. A dozen western states have laws similar to Nebraska's, and most of them are in jeopardy.
The laws are part of an intricate legal system that rations the West's water between farmers and industry, and between states. Where there is water, there is wealth. Therefore, this system has shaped the West, and anything that challenges the system threatens the region's economic order.
Some politicians and interest groups predict that the Sporhase case could set off a "water rush," allowing huge energy companies to reach across state lines and guzzle water needed by farmers, toppling agriculture as the region's No. 1 livelihood.
Others say the impact will be gradual at most, that Sporhase is only the first in a series of cases that could reshape the distribution of the West's water profoundly.
As they pore over the ruling, these people often wonder at the upheaval caused by one hard-headed farmer whose land happened to straddle a state line.
"Sometimes," said water rights attorney Paul Bloom, "the most absurdly localized circumstances produce cosmic law. That's what you learn in law school. It's called precedent."
That's where Joy Sporhase, 65, came in. (Joy traditionally is a man's name in the Sporhase family). He didn't even intend to buy the farm. He and his son-in-law and partner, Delmar Moss, went to a farm auction near here in 1972 planning to buy some cattle. The land also was up for sale, and the highest bidder had offered $145 an acre.
"I thought to myself, heck, if it ain't gonna bring any more than that, why not buy it?" the Sporhase recalled. He bid $146.
"Before we knew it, we'd bought a farm," he said. Word of the spur-of-the-moment purchase traveled fast to town, where Sporhase's wife, Gladys, was shopping. "Somebody said two crazy guys bought a farm, and I just knew it had to be them," she recalled.
The land covered 640 acres: 140 in Colorado and 500 in Nebraska, across the gravel road that is the state line at that point. It had a well, a fairly unremarkable contraption sitting 55 feet inside Nebraska. The former owner had written on his Nebraska well registration form that he intended to use the well to irrigate his land on both sides of the state line, and no one ever questioned him about it.
The well was routinely assigned the number G-33893 on Jan. 18, 1971 -- a number and a date that since have become part of the history of American water law. "See that?" Sporhase said as he pulled the registration form out of his fruit crate, pointing to the rough, hand-printed words.
Several years later, Sporhase and Moss built a $47,000 sprinkling system to dribble water from the Nebraska well on their Colorado corn and bean fields. They contend that they notified state officials of their plan and were not warned against it.
"We were minding our own business," Sporhase said, "and here comes our first letter in the mail." He pulled the 1976 letter from the state Department of Water Resources from the crate. It referred to the 1971 registration form and the plan to pipe water from well No. G-33893 into Colorado. The letter threatened legal action if Sporhase and Moss persisted. "State law prohibits such activity," it said.
"We couldn't see where in the heck it made any difference," Sporhase said. "We owned the land on both sides of the line. The water sure wasn't paying any attention to where the line was. When Delmar went to Korea and my son went to Vietnam, it didn't make any difference what state the boys were from, did it?"
By an accident of geography, Sporhase and Moss found themselves at the center of the West's water troubles. Their farm sits atop a rock formation known as the Ogallala acquifer, the largest underground water source in the country, which now is drying up at an alarming rate.
The acquifer, which traps water like a sponge, supplies water for 15 million acres of farmland from South Dakota to Texas. At the current rate of use, it will dry up within 40 years, according to one study.
The states that depend on the acquifer have written volumes of rules and laws to try to keep what water remains to themselves. Colorado bans the export of underground water, Nebraska outlaws piping water from the acquifer to any state that in turn bans piping it into Nebraska.
Sporhase applied to Colorado for a permit to drill a well on that side of the line, but was turned down because state officials said the acquifer was already overused in his area. This meant he would have to let his 140 Colorado acres go dry, devaluing the land from $168,000 to $56,400.
Instead, the two farmers defied the Nebraska warning and continued to irrigate their Colorado land. When Nebraska filed suit as promised, Sporhase went straight to his lawyer, Dick Dudden of nearby Ogallala, Neb.
Dudden still recalls the day his fiesty farmer-client stormed into the office and Vowed: "If I have to take my case to the U.S. Supreme Court, I'm going to do it."
The state won its case in Chase County, Neb., and again, when the farmers appealed, in the Nebraska Supreme Court. On Sept. 5, 1981, the farmers were forced to shut down operation of their well.
Then the initiative shifted to Dudden, who describes himself as a "country hick lawyer." Dudden, who had never before tried to take a case to the high court, bought a primer, "The United States Supreme Court," to learn how to apply for a hearing.
He also consulted a Denver firm whose attorneys had experience in Supreme Court appeals. They suggested that the farmers base the appeal on a technicality: that underground water is an "article of commerce."
Dudden assigned Ed Steenburg, his newest employee who had just graduated from Creighton Law School in Omaha, to spend the next month drafting the application to the court.
It was Steenburg's first case, and he worked 16-hour days and seven-day weeks, with Dudden going over one draft after another until at last the job was done. The application was filed under Dudden's name since Steenburg hadn't yet practiced the required three years to take a case to the high court.
On Nov. 28, 1981, Dudden received a call from a small Colorado weekly, The Yuma Pioneer, asking for reaction to a wire service report that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case. He thought it was a mistake. Then came a call from The Denver Post, and he began to believe it. Ten days later a post card arrived from the Supreme Court saying: "Sporhase vs. Nebraska. Probable jurisdiction noted."
Officials in western and midwestern states and almost every interest group that uses their water reacted with alarm. Seventeen briefs were filed in opposition to the farmers, only one in favor.
The abstruse argument that water was an article of commerce was obviously an explosive one. Western states have treated water differently from every other natural resource because of its importance to life.
They have divided the region's rivers and streams among themselves through complex formulas, sanctioned by the Supreme Court and interstate compacts. They have further divided their own water supplies among farmers, businesses, towns, wildlife, forests and other "beneficial uses."
Now Sporhase was arguing that water was part of the interstate commerce system, subject to regulation from Washington.
The briefs filed against Sporhase give a glimpse of what was at stake. A group of farmers called it a potential vehicle for the energy industry to siphon off water needed for agriculture; environmentalists saw in it a threat to state conservation programs that protect wildlife and forests; railroad interests perceived a boost to interstate coal pipelines -- projects that need thousands of gallons of water and that threaten to break the rail lines' hold on the coal transportation business.
The only brief filed on the Sporhase-Moss side came from El Paso, which wants to pipe water from nearby New Mexico to meet its development demands but faces a New Mexico law similar to Nebraska's.
While the West debated these sweeping issues, the two farmers anxiously waited.
The hearing was scheduled for March 30, a Tuesday, but the Sporhases and the Mosses, the Duddens and the Steenburgs arrived on the Friday before. Dudden's father flew in from Phoenix. His son came down from Pennsylvania State University. Sporhase's two granddaughters came along, as did some of his neighbors from Holyoke.
Joy Sporhase and his clan had never before been to Washington, and they spent the next three days on a nonstop tourist whirl. They took pictures of everything, later placing the snapshots in a brown leather scrapbook, which sits next to their Bible on the living room coffee table. At the front of the book is a Picture of the Sporhases and their grandchildren standing on the front steps of the Supreme Court.
Joy Sporhase says he will never forget how he felt walking into the court's hearing room that morning. "It was the first time I ever had knots in my stomach and I'm not even scared of the devil." he said. "You just sat there and said to yourself: Here you are, clear at the top."
After the hearing, Sporhase and Moss went home to their farm to tend their fields of dryland wheat, the crop they substituted for irrigated corn and beans after their water was cut off. In the western states, officials and interest groups awaited the decision as if it was a verdict.
The July 2 ruling was not as broad as some opponents had feared, or as some supporters had hoped. The court did conclude that water is an article of interstate commerce, meaning Nebraska cannot ban its export to Colorado, throwing into doubt similar provisions in a dozen other states.
But the 7-to-2 ruling upheld the rest of Nebraska's water law, including the state's right to regulate water use to ensure conservation. The justices said a state still could ban water exports if the ban is "narrowly tailored" to the goal of conserving water.
For Joy Sporhase, that was plenty. But for most western state officials it was too much.
"Ouch" was the reaction of Nebraska Gov. Charles Thone. Officials predicted a flood of spinoff lawsuits, one for each time a state denies water exports in the name of conservation. The conservation programs in some states are so sketchy that officials said they will have trouble defending export bans even if they are justified.
About a dozen legislatures now are considering new or amended water laws, and some environmentalists have predicted optimistically that the ruling could lead to more sophisticated conservation programs throughout the region.
The anxiety comes in part from what David Aiken, a water law specialist at the University of Nebraska, calls the specter of "a full social and political transformation." If water is part of interstate commerce, several officials asked, will it eventually be put on the market for the highest bidder? How can farmers compete with oil companies? Will farmland eventually go out of production?
"For every water right sold to an energy company, the agricultural base is reduced, the political influence of farmers declines," Aiken said.
Attorneys for the energy industry said they see no dramatic transformation from Sporhase, although several said the case fits into the pattern of changes reshaping the West.
Edward W. Clyde of Salt Lake City, who has practiced water law for four decades, said the case improves the position of coal pipelines and other energy interests "only slightly," since a welter of other legal hurdles remain. He said he does not expect Congress to invoke the ruling to intervene in state water regulation.
Sporhase still hasn't received a permit to irrigate his Colorado acres. The court sent the case back to Nebraska with instructions to remoVe the export ban from the state's water law. Until that is done, state officials contend they cannot authorize Sporhase to pump water out of Nebraska. The farmer is considering a return trip to court.
On a recent day, Sporhase drove out to his well and parked his pickup on the state line. The sprinkler sat idle on the Colorado side, amid a field of dry wheat stubble. The well sat idle on the Nebraska side, overgrown with sunflowers and firebrush weeds.
Sporhase stood on the state line, leaned against his truck with the bumper sticker "Farmers Feed America. Do You?" and looked with pride and some consternation at his well.
"The day we stood up here at that auction and bid on this land," he said, "who ever would've thought we'd get into all this?"