A Report from the Acequia Assistance Project
The Getches-Wilkinson Center is pleased to present the work of a team of students with the Acequia Assistance Project, who spent the last two years digging into the history, the politics, and law surrounding attempts to export water from the San Luis Valley.
The term acequia refers to one of the communally-owned irrigation ditches used by agricultural communities in parts of New Mexico and Colorado. But more than that, it describes a centuries-old tradition that treats water as a shared resource, essential to the life of the community. Together, the ditches and the communal values that created them sustain some of the oldest farming communities in the Southwest. The Acequia Assistance Project is a joint effort by the Getches-Wilkinson Center, Colorado Open Lands, and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, to provide legal assistance and educational materials that help Colorado’s acequia communities maintain and protect the acequias.
The Acequia Project’s work is centered in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where water is both scarce and essential for survival. The hydrology of the Valley relies on an aquifer system that sits beneath the Valley floor. Maintaining the health of the aquifers is a matter of life or death for the towns and large-scale farming operations that draw groundwater from wells, and for the communities that use surface water to fill their acequias. The aquifers also underpin the ecology of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and water from the Valley feeds into the Rio Grande River, thereby helping Colorado to meet its legal obligations under the interstate Rio Grande Compact.
Despite the many longstanding demands on the Valley’s water, over the last three decades various developers have looked to the Valley as a source of water for Denver and the other rapidly growing cities on Colorado’s Front Range. Water in the Valley is precious, but it does not fetch the same prices locally that municipalities will pay in the Denver metropolitan area. This profit potential attracts developers looking to buy up water rights in the Valley and then pipe the water over the mountains to growing populations on the Front Range.
So far, these export proposals have withered in the face of fierce opposition from local residents. Residents understand that threats to the Valley’s water are also threats to their way of life, and have fought hard to preserve their region’s resources. Over the course of these fights, various laws and regulations have been built up to safeguard the Valley’s hydrology. But despite local opposition and a growing body of legal hurdles, water export proposals continue to this day. This threat of water exportation is a constant concern hanging over the acequia communities and other local residents that rely on the Valley’s water to survive.
As part of the Acequia Project’s partnership with communities in the San Luis Valley, a team of CU students have spent two years studying water export proposals in the Valley. The students sifted through the array of laws governing water use in the Valley, interviewed community leaders and Colorado water law experts, and tracked the history of water export proposals from the 1980s through the present day. Their final report, Water Exports in the San Luis Valley, draws on Colorado statutes and regulations, water court decisions, investigative reporting, and the work of expert agencies and other scholars to build a nuanced picture of the issue.
Water Exports in the San Luis Valley is intended to be a practical resource for opponents of water export in the Valley. To this end, it reviews the hydrology of the region and the critical roles played by the aquifers. It tracks the history of water usage and export attempts in the Valley. Finally, it catalogues and explains the various legal protections that have been built up over the years to prevent the looting of the Valley’s hydrological heritage.
The Acequia Assistance Project hopes first and foremost that, by collecting the knowledge and experience of the Valley’s occupants, this report will facilitate future defenses of the Valley’s water. But hopefully this report also serves to educate a wider audience and raise awareness about the history of water struggles in the Valley. The lessons learned over decades in the San Luis Valley will likely only grow in relevance as we come to grips with the changing climate of the American West.