The law in Colorado and the West generally awards the greatest control over a water source to the person who first puts it toward a “beneficial use.” As for everyone else―stand in line.
But, as a research team of students, faculty and administrators from MSU Denver learned, a much different system governs the water delivered to farms in the San Luis Valley and other places settled well before Colorado became a state.
The team made three trips to the Valley in September and this month to interview farmers about acequias, community-operated irrigation ditches introduced by settlers from colonial Mexico. Acequias not only deliver water but are part of the cultural, civic, economic and historical heritage of communities in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.
The research fits nicely with the upcoming visit to MSU Denver by Devon G. Peña, this year’s Richard T. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professor and the University’s new One World, One Water Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship. Peña, a professor of American ethnic studies, anthropology and environmental studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, is also secretary of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association in Colorado and a leading expert on acequias.
Peña’s testimony before the Colorado Legislature contributed to the passage of a 2009 bill that recognizes acequia practices, including defining water as a communal asset, allocating water distribution based on equity and not just priority and sharing of scarcity in times of drought.
The University research, supported by funding from the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and the OWOW Center, and information about the law will be presented at the 2012 Colorado Congreso de Acequias this week in San Luis. The research results will also likely be woven into a book sponsored by MSU Denver’s Department of Chicana/o Studies based on the papers of Castro, the late civil rights activist and MSU Denver graduate and instructor, who served five terms in Colorado’s House of Representatives.
Four students took part in the acequia project. Tom Cech, director of the OWOW Center, led the first trip to communities in the San Luis Valley; Adriana Nieto, assistant professor of Chicana/o studies, the second, and research assistant Richard Gould the third.
Specifics about the research, including the names of the participating students, are confidential. Nieto said students interviewed farmers about issues such as who uses which acequias, the condition of the ditches and their knowledge of water rights. Most of the farms have been family owned for generations and vary in size from a few acres to hundreds, Nieto says.
The project benefitted students in several ways, she says. They received a crash course in water basics, research methods and the ethics of “parachuting” into a community and asking sensitive questions. Nieto recalls suggesting the students could present their findings to the Undergraduate Research Conference in May. “They were like, ‘Yeah that would be great but what do these people get out of it’? They’re asking really probing questions that most people don’t even start asking until they’re doing Ph.D. research.”
Ramon Del Castillo, chair and associate professor of Chicana/o Studies, says research such as the acequia project provides essential information about the contributions of Latinos.
“For too long our cultural customs and traditions haven’t been respected,” he says. The research, he adds, “enhances the understanding of cultural and historical systems that have been in place a long time. So, maybe there are pieces of that acequia system that should be emulated as we fight over this drought and over water.
“We really do have something to offer if people are willing to look at it.”