Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.
The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.
“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”
Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.
“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.
The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s…
For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said…
“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.
He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority…
The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.
RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.
All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance…
The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.
Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.
“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”
Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernández knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won’t get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.
She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.
“There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we’re witnessing is we can’t do it all the time anymore because we don’t have the water,” she said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community.”
Some earthen canals didn’t get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.
Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.
For mayordomos — those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution — it has become a scramble.
Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias.
Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase “new normal” because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community’s ditches rely on…
Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.
Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S.
What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.
Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.
Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn’t grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example…
After back-to-back record dry summer rainy seasons, some Southwest areas enjoyed above average rain this year. But maps are still bleak, with nearly 99% of the West dealing with some form of drought…
When water-sharing compacts involving some of New Mexico’s largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left out. Now, as supplies are scarce, acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek state funding to buy water from downstream users. If none is available, they go without.
As long as Rio Chama flows above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. The flow usually nosedives in May, and rationing starts when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from isolated spikes from storm runoff, the flow is now less than half that.
Madrid said acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would need federal approval…
Part of that means reimagining acequias without giving up the sense of community they command.
At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos is growing crops in greenhouses in fall and winter when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.
In Taos, acequia leaders have bumped up annual cleaning to the fall so they don’t miss out on early runoff…
Acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries among water users and profound historical changes, Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín noted in a 2020 research report. He said survival has hinged on a common-good design based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.
Here’s Part 1 of the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before
THEY all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.
South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm.
North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor.
Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table.
Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58 percent of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.
Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.
Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom.
The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years.
A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range.
And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30 percent, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan.
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before.
Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.
“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”
It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18 percent of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture.
The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the tates of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.)
In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000.
But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.
“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop.
This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year.
By contrast, the Denver Water Department needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries.
In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy.
Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions.
After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.
In the crosshairs is one of the oldest agricultural traditions and cultures in Colorado.
The first surface water right in Colorado, appropriated in 1852, is the People’s Ditch near San Luis. With a series of community irrigation canals called acequias, Hispanic settlers soon started growing food in the high desert with water from the Conejos, Rio Grande, Alamosa, Culebra, San Luis, Saguache, Carnero, and Trinchera, among other rivers and creeks.
By the 1870s, as much as 50,000 acres in the San Luis Valley was irrigated. After the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, that number soared to 400,000 acres by the 1880s. By 1900, demand for water in several valley streams already outstripped the natural supply.
Farmers responded by building reservoirs, and, especially, digging wells. By the time of World War I, the San Luis Valley was home to at least 5,000 groundwater wells. The rush was on. Underground supplies seemed endless.
Until they weren’t. In 1972, Colorado water officials ordered a moratorium on construction of new wells in most of the valley, and then ended new appropriations of groundwater in the rest of the valley in 1981, which was one of the worst snowpack years on record, with just 11 percent of normal on May 1.
Luckily, that one terrible year of drought in 1981 was followed by six successive years of some of the best snowpacks in the recorded history of the Rio Grande Basin. From 1982-1987, few worried much about groundwater because the rivers were flooding.
Another run of giant snowpacks in the mid-1990s helped to keep the pressure off groundwater pumping – while helping to build the memories of valley residents like Ronda Lobato, Sheldon Rockey, and Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember the snowbanks being bigger than me – the winters were so long and cold,” said Lobato, whose aunt and uncle lived along San Francisco Creek. “When the runoff came, we had to fill sandbags to protect against flooding. Today there is no water in San Francisco Creek. It doesn’t run at all.”
Farming is never easy, but water shortages make it even tougher, said Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember as a kid being able to dig with a shovel to find water. Now I might have to go 30 feet to find it,” said Mitchell, whose family runs 18 center pivot irrigation rigs. “The ditch water used to go all summer long. Now we’re lucky to get one month, and some ditches do only a few weeks. We don’t have enough surface water to grow cash-value crops every year.”
The mid-1990s were the heyday of San Luis Valley agriculture, said potato grower Sheldon Rockey, and that era changed the way of thinking for a generation of farmers.
“I remember when the river flooded three years in a row. I got the tractor stuck in the mud,” Rockey said. “There was a lot of money made without worrying much about water. The issue with the older crowd of farmers is that they were so successful for so long. Now that we’re in drought, it’s hard to change your thinking.”
The bountiful water years of the 1980s and 1990s in the San Luis Valley have flipped the typical generational divide in farming. Because they lived through the wettest times, the older farmers tend to have a brighter view than the younger farmers, local agricultural officials say.
“Farming is an optimistic profession,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “People my father’s age have seen farming here at its best, when we had giant years for water. But the data and science don’t give me many reasons to think those days will come back around.
“If the big water years do come back, that would be tremendous. But I don’t want us to ignore the freight train coming at us right now.”
That train began blasting its horn about 20 years ago.
State water engineers long had been concerned about well-pumping by valley irrigators, but the connection between groundwater and surface water was not clearly understood. Starting in January 1976, engineers began monitoring the level of valley aquifers. Groundwater declined steadily but gradually, which led to the state moratoriums on drilling.
However, 2002 was the driest on record for the Rio Grande Basin, with a May snowpack of just 6 percent. With little available surface water, valley irrigators turned underground for supplies.
The result: In just one year, engineers recorded a 400,000 acre foot drop in Vvalley aquifers. That is a huge amount of water – a single acre-foot is enough to support two families of four people for a year.
In response to the vast agricultural overpumping came a flurry of laws, regulations, and court actions.
For the past decade, valley irrigators have been under a court order to maintain a sustainable aquifer system. That means restoring at least 400,000 acre feet to underground supplies, officials say. (Engineering studies say the unconfined aquifer actually has been drained by as much as 1 million acre feet since 1976.)
Little progress has been made to return that water in the past 10 years. Now irrigators face a 2031 deadline to repay the water debt.
Still, 5,000 irrigation wells continue to pump in the valley, including 3,000 in the key Subdistrict 1 north of Monte Vista and west of Hooper.
The $426,000 state Rio Grande Implementation Plan was blunt: “Because the sustained and lingering drought since 2002 has not been matched with a decline in agricultural consumptive use, use of the aquifers is unsustainable.”
What local water officials now fear is a replay in the San Luis Valley of what happened to irrigators on the South Platte River, where years of over-pumping by farmers, combined with a resulting state court order, led to the 2006 shutdown of 440 wells and the pumping curtailment of hundreds of others.
In the San Luis Valley, the clock is ticking. A reckoning awaits.
“Shutting down wells – there are people here who can’t survive that,” said Simpson, the state senator. “We are 10 years into this plan to create and maintain a sustainable aquifer system, but we are not yet back to where we started. There are no easy solutions.”
Scientists say it won’t get any easier. Because of climate change, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts even more challenges for water users in the Upper Rio Grande Basin:
Flows will decrease by 33 percent by 2100 at the Rio Grande near Del Norte, Conejos River near Mogote, Los Pinos River near Ortiz, and San Antonio River at Ortiz. Flows will decrease by 50 percent at the Rio Grande near Lobatos.
Peak river flows will come earlier, shifting from June to May.
Fewer water rights will be served. From 1950 to 1999, the average junior-most water right to be served in June on the Rio Grande was a 1910 priority, but by 2100 it will be an 1890 priority.
“We are an incredible agricultural community, but we don’t have the water supply we used to,” said Dutton, the Rio Grande representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There are more people who want water than there is water available. We are facing scarcity.”
Here’s Part 2 in the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
Plan to pipe water to Front Range has big backers, few specifics
THE Front Range executives who want to export water from the San Luis Valley to sell elsewhere are clear about a few things:
They have money. They are backed by former Gov. Bill Owens. And they think their plan will benefit the Valley.
Beyond that, however, details remain sketchy.
Where exactly would the Renewable Water Resources project be built? Who are the investors? How much would it cost? What’s the project timetable? Who are the local supporters? Where are the customers?
Also: If this project will truly help the San Luis Valley, then why are the political, water, and farm leaders of the Valley overwhelmingly against it?
“We know San Luis Valley citizens are looking forward to jobs and an uptick in the local economy as a result of our project moving forward,” said Renewable Water Resources executives in a prepared statement. “Citizens responded favorably to the more than $50 million community fund – run by the community – that would be created to address critical issues which could include public education, economic diversity, senior assistance programs, conservation efforts, law enforcement, mental health services, and more.
“We have asked the unelected Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board the following question, ‘What are you for?’ This question has been met with silence other than falling back on the status quo which means higher taxes and more regulation for the valley’s struggling farms and ranches.”
Local officials say Renewable Water Resources is not to be trusted.
“They continue to use false information to describe and promote their project,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “I don’t think people will fall for a bunch of falsehoods.”
Valley native Ken Salazar – the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, U.S. senator, state Attorney General, and current U.S. ambassador to Mexico – said the project would proceed “over my dead body.”
Local opponents of the plan formed a group, Protect Our Water, that lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. It lists statements of opposition to the RWR proposal from eight separate local governments, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the city of Alamosa, and Mineral and Rio Grande counties.
The group says it is organized around a main principle: “There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.” It has a web page dedicated to correcting what it says are RWR’s numerous misstatements about the project.
RWR executives say they can’t be specific about project locations, timetables, or costs because they are focused on winning Valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, RWR says it wants to build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass, to some uncertain location.
Though a few Front Range cities such as Aurora and Colorado Springs draw some water from the Arkansas River basin, most metro Denver utilities rely on the South Platte River, a more distant location that would require a much longer pipeline and additional pumping costs for RWR.
RWR says it has no identified customers for its proposed project. Executives have been pitching it to utilities on the Front Range.
The financial incentives for RWR: Wholesale water prices are five to 10 times higher on the populated Front Range than in the agricultural San Luis Valley.
In the San Luis Valley, RWR proposes to drill nearly a half-mile into the Valley’s deep aquifer to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year. At the same time, RWR says it will buy and retire 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
The company says it is “investing $68 million to pay local farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above market rate.”
In addition to the purchase of those water rights, RWR said it will donate $50 million to a locally controlled community fund. The company expects that fund to generate $3 million to $4 million per year in contributions for local causes.
RWR also has agreed to donate a 3,000-acre ranch for use as elk habitat near the Baca National Wildlife Refuge south of Crestone.
“To give the above numbers some context,” RWR said in a statement, “the poverty rate of the San Luis Valley is greater than 35 percent and the average median household income is under $26,000. We do believe our commitments to the community will better the valley.”
However, many questions remain unanswered. RWR declined to make available any project executives, including Owens, governor of Colorado from 1999-2007, for an interview for this story, insisting instead that all questions be written and answered via email.
After years of water overuse, Valley irrigators now are operating under state orders to reduce consumption by hundreds of thousands of acre feet. Local water officials remain dubious that RWR can legally remove more water from a system already facing significant cutbacks.
On top of the existing legal challenges, local engineers are girding for hydrologic changes caused by climate change. One state study estimated streamflows in the upper Rio Grande basin will plunge by a third in the next 80 years because of climate change.
Project opponents now must toe a fine line politically. Though they want to highlight the current water shortages because of court rulings, continuing drought, and climate change, they don’t want farmers to give up hope and sell to RWR.
In a Valley dominated by agricultural business, exporting water for other uses will throttle the future economy of the San Luis Valley, RWR opponents say. They point to the example of Crowley County in the lower Arkansas River Valley, where irrigators sold their supplies to Front Range cities, allowing a few farmers to reap big paydays at the expense of the rest of the southeastern Colorado economy.
An irrigator who drops out of a local ditch makes it harder economically for remaining farmers to continue to operate and maintain the ditch.
Many local farmers say buy-and-dry policies threaten the future of agriculture in the Valley.
“Our community is centered on water and farming, and I hope the community sticks together,” said potato farmer Tyler Mitchell. “But in the grand scheme of life, money talks. If the price is right, you might see people sell. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mitchell and other farmers are heartened by the Valley’s history of defeating other water export proposals.
In the 1980s, former Gov. Dick Lamm and American Water Development Inc. sought to develop and export as much as 200,000 acre-feet per year from the Valley’s confined aquifer. After five years of litigation and a lengthy trial, AWDI lost in court.
In the 1990s, Stockman’s Water, led by Monte Vista native Gary Boyce, purchased the Baca Ranch and proposed to export 150,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Valley. Boyce lost two statewide votes and struggled in water court. The Nature Conservancy bought the Baca Ranch in 2002.
Most political leaders in the Valley supported a drive to convert the Great Sand Dunes into a national park partly to help prevent water exports from the Valley. In 2008, the state granted a water right to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve for the groundwater beneath its boundaries.
According to the state’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan, it was the first nonconsumptive water right issued by the state of Colorado. “The water right precludes any withdrawal of water from the aquifers that would cause injury to the park’s environments, which are dependent on the groundwater,” the state plan says.
The Valley’s extensive wetlands and river habitats support at least 13 threatened and endangered species and more than 260 species of birds, including a major spring and fall flight of sandhill cranes and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.
Still, Sean Tonner, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Bill Owens, led a drive to buy 11,500 acres of the Rancho Rosado from the former holdings of Boyce, who died in 2016.
The result is the current RWR project proposal, led by Tonner and backed by Owens and other former members of his gubernatorial administration.
(A detailed explanation of the history of San Luis Valley water export proposals, conducted by the University of Colorado Law School, is here.)
“Because of our project offerings – with this proposal – we can enrich the local economy, bring more jobs to the area, support essential non-profits and community groups, and improve the health of the area’s aquatic habits and wildlife,” RWR said in a statement.
The Protect Our Water coalition strongly disagrees.
“A plan being proposed by Renewable Water Resources will remove water from the Valley and permanently dry up at least 10,000 acres of farmland,” the group says. “It could also negatively impact the environment, including streams, rivers, The Great Sand Dunes National Park, refuges, wetlands, fish and wildlife. Water sustains our economy and lifestyle.
“There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.”
FromColorado Public Radio (Kate Perdoni) via KSUT Public Radio:
In the small Colorado village of San Francisco and its surrounding villages, the original acequias are still operational and are often maintained and used by descendants of the first settlers of present-day Colorado.
“We’re a land and water based people. I am a Chicana, I am a child of the corn. My parents were farmers,” said Junita Martinez, a parciante (water-rights holder) and irrigator on the San Francisco Acequia. Her husband, José, was born in San Francisco. José’s lineage goes back to the initial settlers of the community.
In this village, named after Saint Francis – the patron saint of animals and ecology – water is life.
“It gives us what we need to live. It grows our crops,” said Martinez.
The property’s main aceqiua, an offshoot of San Francisco Creek, begins in San Francisco canyon about four miles from their home, Martinez explained. Springs made of snow melt eventually pool into the small beginnings of the creek. This same stream widens further down the mountain, then diverts into ditches that reach into each field. An elegant system of hand, and now machine-dug waterways, feeds the whole landscape…
At over 8,000 feet in elevation, each of the nine local canyons provide a water source to surrounding Rio Culebra Watershed communities. Today, over 240 families irrigate more than 24,000 acres here, many using traditional acequia irrigation practices. These families grow traditional crops like corn, peas, potatoes, and beans adapted to the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season…
Acequias require maintenance, community support and input, and increased education to maintain protections with changing times – and a changing climate. An acequia comisión is voted in by landowners each year, including a President, Treasurer, and Secretary. These elected officials work closely with the Mayordomo, or ditch rider, to keep track of water rights holders, schedule and facilitate water use, and decide how to divvy water in times of drought. Regardless of acreage, each landowner receives one vote.
“We get people from bigger cities, and they buy a huge ranch, and then they’re a little bit miffed and upset because their vote is only one vote – just like the gentleman with his little two acres,” Martinez said. “But it’s effective, and it’s survived almost 200 years. I think it’s worth saving.”
Historically, the community has ways of dealing with drought and water scarcity that envelope into part of the local tradition. When a year brings less snow, the community takes action.
“We have a very long tradition that works,” said Martinez. “We’re communal in the fact that the water has to be shared. If there’s not enough water, than our Mayordomo and our Comisión have to figure out who gets water.”
In times of drought, water might be limited to certain days per week, with each landowner receiving fewer turns.
From the Water Education Colorado Blog (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):
This is the second blog post in a series on diversity, equity and inclusion in Colorado agricultural water planning. Find the first post here.
As discussed in our previous post, Colorado has an exciting opportunity to create a truly sustainable future for residents by making its water plan update process more inclusive. There are at least three groups that have been historically excluded from Colorado statewide agricultural water planning: the Colorado Ute tribes, those who operate under acequia management systems, and urban agriculture producers. While these groups have been included at an interstate level and at the local level through the Basin Roundtables, intrastate coordination and statewide inclusion of these folks is in need of improvement.
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) acknowledges federally recognized tribes within Colorado and their federally reserved water rights, these important topics are only covered at a high level without in-depth examination of more local nuances. Additionally, the term acequia is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP, in a footnote of a farmer profile.
Colorado should thoughtfully integrate more explicit inclusion for these groups not only in the Colorado Water Plan 2022 update, but also within the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Colorado Water Congress, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The CWCB has made efforts to initiate more inclusion in the CWP update process through the newly announced Equity Committee. This Committee will constitute two representatives from each of the nine river basins, plus one representative from each of the two Colorado Ute tribes. The true purposes and outcomes from this committee, however, remain to be seen. To create a more thoughtful and equitable Colorado water planning process, the equity committee must focus on creating robust measures for water justice in each element of the Colorado Water Plan Update.
This post will focus particularly on agricultural stakeholders who have been excluded from Colorado water planning. The following sections will provide background and discussion for the three groups identified. While these groups are related in that they were not adequately included in the 2015 CWP, each community is quite distinct. Both acequia water management systems and tribal water users have a rich history in Colorado that must not be ignored in planning discussions. Separately, urban agriculture, while not entirely novel, is a rapidly emerging practice in Colorado’s cities and may serve as an important tool not only to preserve agricultural viability but also to facilitate water stewardship and education. These three communities each have uniquely valuable and important perspectives on regional water issues in the state and should be given specific consideration in the planning process.
Acequias in Colorado
For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. The philosophy revolves around loyalty to the community and a common understanding that water is both a shared resource and a shared responsibility. This ideology has shaped relationships between humans and the environment for centuries in Colorado, creating a resilient natural and cultural system that supports families, communities, and the food system.
Acequia water management systems have been largely excluded in Colorado’s state water planning process, despite the fact that there are thousands of acres of acequias between Colorado’s Rio Grande and Arkansas River Basins. Among the Statewide Water Supply Initiatives, the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, the 2017 Technical Update, and the 2019 Ripple Effects Report, the word acequia is mentioned only once一in a footnote in the 2015 Plan. Acequias are briefly discussed in the 2015 Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan, and they are not mentioned in the 2015 Arkansas Basin Implementation Plan.
Acequia stakeholders are often absent from statewide planning process meetings and forums. The newly established Colorado Water Equity Task Force does not include any representation for acequia stakeholders. Excluding acequias from the Colorado water planning process shuns an entire population of Coloradans一primarily farmers of color一from statewide water planning and funding. Farmers and others who operate under acequia management must be recognized and included in the statewide planning process for the 2022 CWP update.
Colorado water planners may look to acequia management in New Mexico to model pathways for inclusion. Despite the similarities in culture and natural resource demands in the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s and New Mexico’s governance approaches to acequias are starkly different. Acequia recognition has been written into New Mexico law since the mid-19th century. Furthermore, throughout New Mexico’s statewide water plan, almost every time that agriculture or irrigation is discussed, so are acequias. For example, as mentioned above, the culture of shared scarcity that underlies acequias is crucial to farmers in times of drought. New Mexico’s Water Plan explicitly acknowledges this strength, illustrating that this type of water sharing should be encouraged to support holistic agricultural viability. Colorado water planning could benefit from a similar outlook on the resilience of acequias.
Though the 2009 Colorado Acequia Recognition Statute codified that acequias hold unique powers and rights under Colorado water law, the statute only allows acequias with written bylaws to have the special powers and unique rights recognized under Colorado law. This can be a barrier for acequia communities, as some producers may not have the means to hire a lawyer to draft legally acceptable bylaws. New Mexico’s Water Plan also discusses how the state supports acequia bylaw creation. Such programs are absent in Colorado, where acequia users rely on non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, such as the Getches-Wilkinson Center Acequia Assistance Project and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, rather than on funds directly from the state.
Colorado water planners should consult with stakeholders within Colorado’s acequia communities on how to best include planning and funding for acequias in statewide water management. Historically, the relationship between acequia managers in the San Luis Valley and in the Arkansas Basin with the Colorado Water Conservation Board has not been the strongest. CWCB should be inclined to add another seat to the equity committee specifically for acequia representation to try to remedy this historic exclusion.
Colorado Ute Tribes
The Ute peoples are the oldest continuous inhabitants of the land now called Colorado. They have been intimately tied to the waters of the region for many centuries, long before incursion by European colonizers and settlers. However, beginning in the mid-19th century, the United States federal and Colorado state governments began systematically dispossessing the Ute people of their land and separating them from their sources of water.
By the end of the 19th century, the only three bands of Ute peoples remaining in the state had been relegated to its southwest corner, in what are now the Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute reservations. Although the Ute people had been gradually pressured to adopt a settled agricultural lifestyle, they were removed to some of the least suitable lands for agriculture in the state.
Despite these setbacks, both tribes have fostered successful agricultural communities on their reservations; the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise, for instance, has been repeatedly recognized at both state and national levels for its products.
Much has been done in the last 30 years to address some of the historical inequities created by the separation of the Colorado Ute Tribes from their ancestral lands and traditional water sources. The 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act and subsequent 2000 Amendments clarified and quantified the Tribes’ reserved rights and authorized a reduced Animas-La Plata Project as well as deliveries from McPhee Reservoir to provide a reliable source of water to the tribes. Both tribes are active members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable and are represented on the Colorado Water Equity Task Force, and the importance of Tribal reserved rights is addressed in the 2015 Water Plan.
Both tribes, however, still face significant supply and infrastructure challenges, as detailed in the 2018 Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study. Some of these infrastructure projects, such as the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, are nominally maintained by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, although that agency’s budget and staffing challenges make adequate upkeep difficult.
As holders of federal reserved water rights, the Southern Ute Indian and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes are invaluable partners to the State of Colorado and the Southwest Basin in addressing water management challenges, particularly issues of interstate compact compliance. Much of the groundwork for this partnership has been laid in the Ten Tribes Partnership Study, which provides detailed data on the challenges faced by the Colorado Ute Tribes, as well as opportunities that working closely with the tribes can provide state and regional water planners. The study provides an excellent starting point for addressing the challenges faced by the tribes and highlights their importance in addressing the water challenges faced by the State and the region.
Given the challenges and opportunities posed by the tribes’ unique water rights and the long history of oppression and exclusion of Indigenous peoples by both the federal and state governments, particular considerations of equity and justice must be extended to the Colorado Ute Tribes in regards to water issues. This is particularly important because tribes’ vital cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial uses are often not adequately addressed in Western legal and economic structures.
Careful, intentional, and respectful consultation with the tribes一as well as inclusion in statewide deliberative water planning processes一is essential to developing a robust understanding of their needs, as well as the cultural significance and intended uses of water.
Urban agriculture (UA) is most simply defined as “all forms of agricultural production occurring within or around cities.” In any given urban area, this may include quite a variety of operations and projects, including ground-based outdoor gardens and farms, indoor hydroponic or aquaponic growing, rooftop gardens and farms, landscaping and nurseries, urban livestock, and more. The sector is growing as cities become home to more UA-focused organizations, citizens get more creative with urban landscapes, and policies incentivize green infrastructure. Such programs or policies are often intended to promote public health, economic development, and enhance socio-ecological relationships.
Over time, UA has taken on a new form and meaning. With connections now to social justice and environmental sustainability, urban farming has taken root in countless large and small city centers across the nation, oftentimes appearing in the form of community gardens, rooftop gardens, and greenhouses. UA is not recognized in the Colorado Water Plan, or many other western state water plans, despite its growing popularity across the nation. UA offers a multitude of exciting opportunities to foster resilience within western water planning and our food systems.
Regardless of the form it takes, all UA operations require water. Water resources may be utilized on a wide spectrum of UA irrigation tactics一from traditional flood irrigation in peri-urban fields to precision application in a vertical farm. The increasing prevalence of UA operations in Colorado cities requires more attention from water planners, especially as food production technology advances and local food becomes more popular among citizens. The CWP update should not only provide support for both existing operations, but also recognize the potential water-efficient food production in the future of UA. This will be especially important as Colorado could see a shifting food system in the face of climate change and urbanization. The current trajectory of UA could provide a significant contribution to water resilience planning and food production for Colorado.
Though this growth may represent an exciting shift in the food system, it is crucial to recognize UA’s capacity for exacerbating environmental injustices. Often, initiatives led by non-residents may be detrimental to local communities. This is especially prevalent when mostly young, white non-residents have led initiatives in predominantly Black and/or Latinx neighborhoods, “unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts.” Furthermore, residents of lower-income communities and/or people of color are more likely to experience difficulty accessing land, funding, and political support for UA projects than white and middle class individuals or organizations. Therefore, in order to avoid perpetuating injustice, UA implementation must be nuanced and place-based. A successful and anti-racist CWP update will recognize possible inequities and provide support for urban residents to facilitate UA projects within their own neighborhoods.
This overview intends to provide the background and ethics necessary to integrate the Colorado Ute Tribes, acequias, and urban agriculture considerations into the Colorado Water Plan update. In an effort to begin the process of elevating voices of underrepresented communities, this research team hosted a virtual listening session and working meeting for water planning professionals and UA stakeholders. This event was meant to serve as a platform for stakeholder and administrator collaboration with the goal of creating a more equitable and inclusive CWP update. Our next post will detail the process and results of this meeting.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 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
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.
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.
An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
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.
Maiz de concho growing at The Acequia Institute seed library patch, El Rito, CO. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Delmer Vialpando and Devon G. Peña on La Sierra common lands, the 80,000-acre restored land grant of the Culebra acequia farmers. Photo by The Acequia Institute
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
Maíz de concho from Almunyah Dos Acequias.Viejo San Acacio, CO Photo by Devon G. Peña
Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands. Source: Google Maps (screenshot).
The Upper Rio Grande/Rio Arriba Watershed (highlighting location of center-pivot sprinkler circles) Note: Green dots are center-pivot farm and ranch operations, most with junior groundwater withdrawal rights and subject to court-ordered mandates designed to mitigate damages to farmers with senior surface rights (including acequias) and to augment deliveries to the Rio Grande Interstate Compact. Source: NASA/MODIS files at: http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/baumanpr/geosat2/Dry_Land_Water/Dry_Land_Water.htm
Fig. 7. Tunicate white flint. From 2010 harvest at Almunyah Dos Acequias. Viejo San Acacio, CO. Compare with (c) in Fig. 6. Photograph by D. G. Peña
Fig. 6. Diagram of teocintle, tunicate, primitive, and modern maize. Source: Beadle (1980).
Fig. 5. Center of origin teocintle and maize land race populations. The light blue dots include accessions from northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley in Colorado. Source: Matsuoka, et al (2002).
What we are working to protect. Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho grown at Acequia Institute farm in Viejo San Acacio. Photograph by Devon G. Peña
San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.
Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos
Acequia cleaning prior to running the first water of the season
Acequia del Cerro, San Luis
The country’s second largest potato producing region, is in its 18th year of drought in 2020. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year. San Luis People’s Ditch
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
An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Fig. 7. Tunicate white flint. From 2010 harvest at Almunyah Dos Acequias. Viejo San Acacio, CO. Compare with (c) in Fig. 6. Photograph by D. G. Peña
San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos
Acequia cleaning prior to running the first water of the season
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
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.
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.
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
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.”