The Spring 2020 Headwaters Magazine: Pursuing Water Justice is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):

Interstate 70 and a Nestle Purina pet food factory loom above northeast Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. By Matthew Staver

When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up

Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.

“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.

Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.

The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.

Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.

With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.

In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.

Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”

Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.

“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”

80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.

When Government Fails

Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.

To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.

In 2016, labor and community activists in Lansing, Michigan, called for Governor Rick Snyder to resign over the Flint water contamination crisis. The former governor did not step down—his term lasted through 2019. Photo by Jim West

Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.

More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.

Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.

According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

Coping with Forever Chemicals

Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.

“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.

Concerned members of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition took a bus to Colorado School of Mines in January 2020 to hear fellow coalition member Mark Favors speak alongside experts about PFAS. Panelists included Dr. Christopher Higgens, an engineering professor working on PFAS cleanup at Colorado School of Mines; Rob Bilott, the attorney who fought DuPont on PFAS contamination in West Virginia; and others. Photo by Matthew Staver

These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.

When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.

The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.

Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.

“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.

Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.

“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.

As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.

Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.

Justice through Water Rights

Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.

In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.

The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.

Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.

“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”

In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Judy Lopez with Colorado Open Lands and landowner Dave Marquez discuss upcoming restoration work on the Culebra River, which
traverses his property. Marquez irrigates from the Francisco Sanchez Acequia to grow alfalfa-grass hay. The acequia worked with Colorado Open Lands and the bylaws
project to develop bylaws that preserve their oral traditions. Photo by Christi Bode

It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”

In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”

Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.

Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.

Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.

Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.

“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.

Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.

“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”

The External Costs of Industry

Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.

Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.

Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.

Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.

In August 2015, wastewater from the Gold King Mine was flowing through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals about a quarter of a mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Blake Beyea

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.

“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”

While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.

The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.

State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.

Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate

Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.

“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”

Lizeth Chacón is the executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial justice organization that is working on a climate justice campaign.
Chacón, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, emphasizes the importance of engaging and creating opportunities for disadvantaged communities to lead. Photo by Matthew Staver

Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.

Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.

“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.

Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.

“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.

Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.

Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”

Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.

He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.

He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.

Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.

Centuries-old irrigation system shows how to manage scarce water — @NatGeo

Selection of the 2015 native heirloom maize harvest of the seed library of The Acequia Institute in Viejo San Acacio, CO
Photo by Devon G. Peña

Here’s an in-depth look at acequia culture and administration from Robert Neuwirth writing for National Geographic. Click through to read the whole thing and to take in the illustrations and animations. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s spring again, the time of year—for the 300th time in some instances—when New Mexico communities come together to clean the acequias, irrigation channels that carry snowmelt from the mountains to newly tilled farm fields. Each annual cleaning is one more demonstration that at least here, in these close-knit communities arrayed across arid and rugged rangeland, it’s possible for people to share scarce resources to achieve a common goal—in this case, making sure everyone in the group has enough water.

Acequias are mutually managed, irrigation channels that have been in continuous operation in the arid American Southwest since before the formation of the United States. This communal water system traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their traditions to the territory in the 1600s, and who themselves borrowed it from the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. Indeed, the word acequia (pronounced ‘ah-seh-key-uh,’ stress on the ‘seh’) is an adaptation of the Arabic as-saqiya, meaning water carrier.

There are close to 700 functioning acequias in New Mexico, according to the state’s Acequia Commission, and a score more in Colorado. Many of these gravity-fed ditches that bring runoff from the mountains to the fields have been operating for three centuries, and some were likely dug long before that.

Most acequias are open channels and many farmers irrigate by flooding their fields, which means that lots of water leaches away or evaporates. Yet studies show that the dirt waterways provide more robust environmental benefits than concrete culverts and metal pipes, says Sam Fernald, professor of watershed management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and the head of the school’s Water Resources Research Institute.

Seepage—which can range between one-third and one-half of the flow—replenishes groundwater while also fostering a rich wetlands around each ditch, Fernald says. A number of other studies suggest that irrigating with acequias extends the hay-growing season and so boosts the number of cattle that can be grazed. And the largest benefit, though much harder to quantify, is that the acequias create communities that serve as stewards of the environment.

Parciantes—members who own water rights in an acequia community—express this in a slightly different fashion. “Belonging to the land is what’s important,” says Joseph Padilla, a retired teacher who irrigates his family’s land with water diverted from the Gallinas River into the Acequia Madre de los Vigiles just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Fat snowflakes float around us, falling onto his field of newly sown winter wheat. “We don’t control it. The land owns us. We’re just a small part of it.”

The acequias also protect traditional farming techniques. “I still have the same chile seed my ancestors grew and I still grow the same chile variety,” says Don Bustos, master-farmer and long-time mayordomo of the Acequia de Santa Cruz in the hills above Española.

As Bustos and I stroll the fields that once belonged to his great-grandmother, he says: “This acequia does more than distribute water. It holds the community together as a spirit enterprise.”

The history and preservation of the #Acequia del Madre del Río Pueblo, Taos, #NewMexico — The Paseo Project

Click here to read the report:

The Paseo Project is excited to present Acequia Aquí: The history and preservation of the Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo. The essay and series of maps illuminate the deteriorating acequia network at the heart of the town of Taos. Through community collaborations, The Paseo Project seeks to educate, illuminate and support this historic and culturally important public infrastructure. Through this exploration, the Paseo Project seeks to transform our community by celebrating the downtown acequia network through creative and artistic events and installations. With the help of this booklet, we hope that you will better understand the history and value the acequia system has provided to our community and imagine with us new ways that we can celebrate the gift of their presence. — The Paseo Project Team

View north from Taos Plaza toward Taos Mountain. By NASA World Wind. – NASA World Wind., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50266898

Acequia La Vida ByLaws — Greg Hobbs

Greg is a restless guy. Here’s his report from acequia country.

Acequia La Vida
ByLaws

In late fall, the ancestors
spread blankets

of leaves over the bones
of their ditches

feeding the river down
terraces they plant.

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Udall, Heinrich Announce USDA Grants to Support Acequia Associations & Traditional Communities, Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers, and Tribal Communities

An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Here’s the release from Senator Tom Udall’s office:

Nearly $525,000 in grants come from USDA’s Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program

Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced three grants totaling nearly $525,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to benefit New Mexico’s traditional communities and acequia associations, Hispanic farmers and ranchers, and tribal agricultural communities in the state. The grants were made through the USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, which Udall and Heinrich have long supported to help socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and foresters in New Mexico and across the country who have historically experienced limited access to USDA loans, grants, training, and technical assistance.

“New Mexico’s traditional communities have been stewards of our state’s water and land for generations, and this new funding will support acequia farmers and ranchers as they continue to manage our resources for generations to come. These grants will empower farmers and ranchers from Hispanic and tribal communities across New Mexico to continue producing for our state and the nation,” said Udall. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I have worked hard to preserve the Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program and to secure additional funding for these grants – because this program provides essential support to the farmers and ranchers who help make New Mexico strong, but who too often are overlooked or left behind when it comes to federal assistance. I look forward to working with our land grants, acequias, and other traditional New Mexico farming communities to build on this progress.”

“Our farmers help drive New Mexico’s economy, especially in rural communities,” said Heinrich. “Acequia users, land grants, and tribal communities have cultivated land in New Mexico for centuries. I will continue fighting for New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers so they can continue our state’s long tradition in agriculture and promote long-term, sustainable use of our land and water.”

The USDA grants announced by Udall and Heinrich include:

Support for New Mexico Acequias and Traditional Communities: Udall and Heinrich announced a $135,964 grant for the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) for the New Mexico Acequia Farmer and Rancher Education Project, to strengthen the agricultural operations of the farmers and ranchers who use acequias or community ditches in New Mexico. According to USDA, “through a statewide membership network, NMAA will provide education and technical assistance to improve agricultural operations through irrigation efficiency, to train new and beginning farmers and youth, and to increase participation in USDA programs. NMAA will work with organizational and agency partners to ensure farmers, ranchers, and acequias meet eligibility requirements for USDA programs and to assist with USDA applications which will benefit over 300 producers. NMAA will also provide education and training through workshops and demonstration sites for new and beginning farmers and youth benefiting over 150 participants.”

Support for Native farmers and ranchers from New Mexico tribes and pueblos: Udall and Heinrich announced two grants totaling $388,492 to benefit farmers and ranchers from tribal and pueblo communities. One grant will help expand access for Northern New Mexico pueblos to key USDA programs to benefit the ownership, operation, and profitability of family farms and ranches for pueblo farmers and ranchers. The second grant will help fund agricultural workshops, training, resources, and free consultations for farmers and ranchers on the Navajo Nation.

More information can be found here.

A look at #Colorado acequias

Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, La Sierra Common, and Subdivisions. La Sierra is the 80,000-acre common land or ejido. Map courtesy of High Country News at URL: https://www.hcn.org/issues/104/3250.

Click through and read the entire article from KUNC (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

For many people, spring is a time for deep cleaning, a time to take stock of and prepare for the year ahead. That’s also the case on farms in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, where farmers spend their weekends banding together to clean out the irrigation ditches that bring snowmelt to their fields.

The clean up, known as the limpieza, is part of an irrigation tradition unique to this region for centuries.

If you irrigate here, Quintana says, you or one of your family members is expected to be here shoveling out muck, removing trash and tree limbs. The limpieza is an annual obligation…

If not for the clean up, water would pool in places it’s not needed, caught up in makeshift dams of trash and vegetation.

Small farm towns in portions of the San Luis Valley, like San Pablo, are organized around acequias, networks of irrigation ditches and canals dug nearly 150 years ago. It’s what makes farming possible in this dry stretch of land. While most Western law views water as property – a commodity people own and trade – acequias see it as a community asset, something tied to the land and shared.

Quintana, 61, grew up on a farm in San Pablo. As an adult, he left for a career in IT, always knowing his family’s land would be here for him to return to. He participates in the annual ditch cleaning now because he always has. But Quintana says there’s a growing sense that it will be difficult to bring the next generation back to the valley to keep the acequias functional and vibrant.

Sharing water in the West

On this day, the limpieza moves fast. The ditch is cleaned, and a group of middle-aged farmers pile into the back of an old pickup truck to head to the volunteer fire station for chicken fajitas.

It’s hard to overstate how radical the idea of sharing water in the West is. Everyone outside an acequia in states like Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada, uses the prior appropriation system for water. That system, where your right to water is given to you based on when you claimed it, doesn’t allow for easy sharing, but it’s the core tenant of acequia management. Distribution of water is based on equity and need, not given out because you claimed it first.

Sharing water sounds easy if snowpack is high and runoff is plentiful. But in times of scarcity everyone within an acequia feels the shortage together.

Acequias vary in their style of governance. A common form is as a civic association, with members, the people who irrigate with water from a particular ditch, a board of directors and at least one employee who runs the ditch. That person is the mayordomo.

Augustin “Roy” Esquibel is the mayordomo for the ditch cleaned today. When he arrives at the fire station for lunch, he takes the time to shake everyone’s hand, and jokes that he’ll have to walk a lot more ditches to work off these fajitas.

He motions down the street, toward the church of San Isidro, the Catholic saint of farmers. This valley is sustained by agriculture, he says. Everyone here is either currently farming or a descendent of farmers. The land today is used to mostly grow hay or other grasses for cattle and horses, with some wheat and dry beans grown as well. As a water steward, Esquibel says his faith guides his decisions.

Taos Valley Acequia Association Annual Meeting, March 3, 2018

Click here for the inside skinny.

Acequia primer

Here’s a in-depth look at acequias from Gerald Zarr writing for AramcoWorld. Click through and read the whole article and for the great photographs. Here’s an excerpt:

Derived from the Arabic as-saqiya (“that which gives water”), acequias are gravity-flow irrigation ditches that evolved over 10,000 years in the arid regions of the Middle East. Especially from the ninth through the 16th century, control of the movement of water—hydrology—was one of the most important technologies developed from Mesopotamia and Persia to Arabia, North Africa and Spain. When the Spanish colonized the New World, they brought with them their acequia technology. (Acequias have subterranean cousins from the same regions, known variously as qanats or falajs.)

My own visit to New Mexico started in Albuquerque with a tutorial on acequias in bravura style by José A. Rivera of the University of New Mexico and author in 1998 of Acequia Culture: Water, Land and Community in the Southwest. Acequias, he explained, have not just history, but also culture, governance and issues of sustainability. He pointed me to the nearby Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, where a recent exhibit featured artworks and 130 objects relating to digging and maintaining the waterways. One painting in the exhibition showed water from an acequia seeping through the ground to recharge the aquifer below. Other exhibits included a wooden headgate to open and shut the acequia’s flow (perhaps of a type Nichols had imagined for Mondragón); a pair of overalls and rubber boots worn by a mayordomo, or water master; and the rusted back end of an early 1950s Dodge pickup, displayed as a typical mode of transportation to and from acequias. A bumper sticker proclaimed, “Our Acequias: Life, Culture, Tradition”—fighting words in a region where it’s not just The Milagro Beanfield War but real communities, government authorities and property developers that are cooperating and contesting the water rights that mean the difference between feast and famine, endurance and eviction.

Three days later I was driving north out of Santa Fe following the Rio Grande through the Espanola Valley on New Mexico State Road 68, also known as the “River Road to Taos.” Soon I was in real “Milagro Beanfield” territory, for the film was shot at Truchas, just 30 kilometers east. This road began as the northern leg of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road to the Interior Lands), Spain’s 2,400-kilometer route of conquest from Mexico City that reached north to Taos. On this road in July 1598, Capitan General Don Juan de Oñate brought the first Spanish settlers to New Mexico and established one of the earliest European settlements in what is now the United States.

Four hundred colonists and soldiers, and several hundred Indians from what is now Mexico, came with 83 creaking wagons, 1,000 horses and 7,000 head of livestock in a procession six kilometers long that moved as fast as the cattle walked. Oñate settled his headquarters about 50 kilometers north of present-day Santa Fe in a town he called San Gabriel (today’s Chamita). Water was so essential he ordered construction of acequias even before the town’s houses, public buildings and churches were finished. It was easy to understand why: Settlers were carrying buckets of water hanging from yokes across their shoulders. In Acequia Culture, Rivera described how the settlers diverted water on one of the might-iest stretches of the Rio Grande and built an acequia:

[They built] dams made of logs, brush, rocks and other natural materials…. Using wooden hand tools, the digging of earthen ditches and laterals would follow the construction of the main diversion dam…. [T]hese irrigation works included the acequia madre (mother ditch or main canal), compuertas (headgates), canoas (log flumes for arroyo crossings), sangrias (lateral ditches cut perpendicular from the main canal to irrigate individual parcels of land) and a desague channel, which drains sur-plus water back to the stream source.

The acequia network channeled the swollen flow of springtime mountain snowmelt into community fields and gardens that blossomed with jalapeño peppers, blue corn, squash, lettuce, cabbage, peas, garbanzos, cumin seed, carrots, turnips, garlic, onions, artichokes, radishes and cucumbers. More than 400 years later, these same crops are grown in the Espanola Valley, some still watered by acequias.

In 1610 Oñate’s successor, Pedro de Peralta, moved the capital to Santa Fe. Once again, building acequias was the first order of business. On each side of the Santa Fe River, an acequia madre was dug, and eventually dozens of ace-quias sustained the growing population. Today, although the city’s acequias no longer serve primarily for agriculture, they are a treasured part of the urban scene: One of Santa Fe’s prettiest streets is the narrow, winding street named Acequia Madre.

In following years, acequias were built also across much of the Southwest in lands that became Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California, but it is in New Mexico that the system proved most durable. Today New Mexico boasts some 800 active acequias, all survivors of political, legal and administrative changes through the Spanish (1598-1821), Mexican (1821-1848) and Territorial (1848-1912) periods, as well as us statehood, to the present day. After New Mexico, Colorado comes next with an estimated 150 active acequias in the four southern counties of Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano and Las Animas.

By contrast, in the other states, most colonial-era acequias were abandoned or supplanted by private mutual ditch companies, water-user associations, irrigation districts or conservancy districts. Few remain in Arizona, California and Texas—although San Antonio has preserved one near Espada Dam southeast of the city.

Rivera explained that the word “acequia” refers not only to the physical trench in the ground, but also, and just as importantly, to the system of community self-governance. “You don’t just have a ditch; you belong to an acequia,” he explains, emphasizing that the word also means the co-op of farmers who share the water and govern their own use of it. So important are the organizations that the state of New Mexico recognizes acequias as political subdivisions.

The acequia elects its own mayordomo, whose role has antecedents in the Moorish sahib al-saqiya, or “water giver,” who assesses how much water is available daily and prescribes times for each farmer to water his crops.

Acequia water law also requires that persons with irrigation rights in the acequia participate in an annual, springtime ditch cleanup. This is when, all along the upper Rio Grande, the sound of rakes and shovels brings a bustle to largely tranquil hills, as members scoop and scrape whatever has settled in the ditch over the winter. “It’s a tradition,” says Rivera. “The annual cleanup bonds the community.”

The renewed flow of water that followed the work marked a festive time. “Kids would run ahead yelling, ‘the water is coming!’” wrote New Mexico historian and former mayordomo Juan Estevan Arellano in Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water, published just before his death in 2014.

Arellano spent much of his life as an acequias advocate. In his book he took the reader to his farm at the confluence of the Embudo and Río Grande Rivers, about halfway between Santa Fe and Taos on the Camino Real, which had been in his family since 1725. He wrote that he lived on “a combination experimental farm and recreational site that I call my almunyah, from the classical Arabic word meaning ‘desire.’

[…]

In New Mexico acequia water was historically treated as a community resource that irrigators had a shared right to use and a shared responsibility to manage and protect. With statehood, however, came the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. Based on the principle that water rights are not connected to land ownership, it meant that water—from any source—could be sold or mortgaged like other property. This gave rise to the populist Southwest adage, “water flows uphill to money”—or, more simply, water ends up being owned by the rich and powerful.

G. Emlen Hall, author in 2002 of High and Dry: The Texas-New Mexico Struggle for the Pecos River, explains that real- estate developers often try to secure water rights for new projects by buying irrigated land served by acequias. Then, he says, they try—often against local opposition—to transfer those rights to new, distant developments. “This, of course, would have picked the acequias apart, tract by tract, and eventually destroyed them,” he notes, “These battles over water are continuing, and they can be intense.”

Rivera agrees. “One water transfer at a time erodes the function of a community ditch. Eventually there is a tipping point if too much water is taken out of the ditch,” he says. “Beyond the tipping-point threshold, reached after many such sales and transfers, the acequia institution and governance collapse.”

Starting in the late 1980s, there was a burst of “acequia activism” in New Mexico that culminated in 1988 with the establishment of the statewide New Mexico Acequia Association (nmaa) and, around the same time, farmers formed regional acequia associations. In a major legislative victory for the groups, the New Mexico Legislature enacted a law in 2003 allowing acequias to block water transfers outside the physical acequia if detrimental to it or its members.

Although some developers disparage acequias as water-guzzlers, the claims are disproved by recent research. Studies by hydrologist Alexander “Sam” Fernald, professor of watershed man-agement at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, show that traditional earthen irrigation ditches offer hydrologic benefits beyond simply delivering water to crops.

His data show that, on average, only seven percent of the water diverted from the Rio Grande into a north-central New Mexico acequia is lost to evapotranspiration—the sum of evaporation from all sources, including water vapor released by plants. The remaining 93 percent returns to the river, 60 percent as surface water from irrigation tailwater and 33 percent as groundwater. Acequias also help build healthy aquifers by filtering the water that percolates underground: Aquifers are key sources of drinking water. Furthermore, they bene-fit livestock, which can drink directly from acequias rather than going to the river. “Most people are unaware of these positive effects of acequias,” says Fernando.

Colorado Water 2012: Acequia culture dates back a thousand years

sanluispeoplesditch.jpg

Here’s the next installment of the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series written by Lauren Krizansky. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

During the eighth century, the Moors brought the acequia – an Arabic word pronounced a-TH-equia – system to Spain under Hakam II’s reign. When the Spanish conquered South America centuries later, they introduced the system in similar landscapes eventually as far north as the American Southwest. In the late 1500s, the Spanish explorers found the northern New Mexico Pueblo Indians had independently developed a similar ditch irrigation system, which they improved with their horses and advanced tools.

Gravity and velocity pull the water through the land and are the two main system elements. Acequias move water through the crop fields and usually continue to flow back into larger bodies of water. The success of the system depends on the community and, if possible, the leadership of an acequia manager known as an acequiero in Spain or a mayordomo in the southwest. The ditches must be cleaned in the spring to remove eroded soil and organic materials and water must be delegated through land use, land size and water availability. Constant maintenance and surveillance is a necessity during peak irrigation months.

Acequias do not only preserve history, they preserve the land that, in turn, preserves the people. If the acequia is still a primarily earthen system, it seeps water back into the ground and follows the land’s natural contours. Since acequia maintenance requires hands, not machines, the community must work together to sustain the irrigation channels.

The ancient irrigation practice, however, is struggling to survive for many reasons in the Valley and abroad. Drought makes the systems obsolete and technology replaces manual labors. The children raised on the waters are interested in other things because reporting time spent as a mayordomo on a resume does not open gates in the modern world. In spite of the challenges, there are local efforts to give the modern world an opportunity to conserve an international history.

More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.

The World’s Best Photos of acequia

A picture named acequiadelcerro.jpg

We’re going to thaw out today in Denver according to the NOAA but if you still find yourself longing for summer when the water starts running in the ditches you can click here for a Flickr Hive Mind display of acequia photos and imagine yourself sitting under the cottonwoods with a cool drink watching the water move to the fields. Thanks to TaosAcequias.org for the link

Governor Ritter signs H.B. 09-1233 (Recognize Acequias)

A picture named acequiadelcerro.jpg

From the Valley Courier:

House Bill 1233 promotes and encourages the continued operation of acequias, or historic community ditches such as those located in Vigil’s home county of Costilla County. The bill also promotes the viability of the historic communities that depend on this system as a means of irrigation and cultural preservation in southern Colorado. Democratic State Senator Gail Schwartz, who also represents the San Luis Valley as part of her senate district, was the Senate sponsor.

The acequia bill was a significant victory for freshman legislator Vigil who introduced the bill in the House of Representatives. It was personally significant for the representative because his great grandparents were the first water rights owners in Colorado. “The passage of this bill has been long overdue. It is important that we recognize all of Colorado’s diversity,” Vigil said. “House Bill 1233 attempts to tell a story of the culture and history of some of Colorado’s first Hispanics to move to southern Colorado, specifically the San Luis Valley. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado, and home of the state’s first water right and the San Luis People’s ditch. I am extremely proud and thankful to my colleagues in the House and Senate to recognize the importance of this legislation.”

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.