A Conversation with Judy Lopez on the long History of Water Sharing in the San Luis Valley

Water Education Colorado has been taking a close look at environmental justice and equity through the development of equity principles, adopted by the board in January 2020, and through programming, including the spring 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine which focuses on equity and environmental justice in water. For this post in a series of Q&As on environmental justice and equity, we spoke with Judy Lopez who works as a conservation project manager for Colorado Open Lands. Judy’s work with Colorado Open Lands entails working with a range of landowners, preserving wildlife habitats, agricultural land, culturally significant lands, forests, and scenic open spaces. Here’s what she had to say:

Can you tell me about your role with Colorado Open Lands?

My role at Colorado Opens Lands, is as the San Luis Valley Conservation Project Manager and so my area of the state is the six counties that make up the San Luis Valley. I work with a variety of landowners to preserve wildlife habitats, significant ag land, culturally significant lands, forest properties and of course, scenic open space.

Can you tell me about your connection to acequias, or potentially about the Acequia Initiative Project?

About nine years ago Colorado Open Lands had done a bit of a revamp of their priority areas. One of those priority areas that they really felt like we hadn’t done a lot of work in, was the San Luis Valley. Our Conservation Project Manager, Sarah Parmer, came down and got involved with the acequia community. The acequia community is based in San Luis Colorado, and it is a traditional land grant community. If we go way back to the middle of the 1800s, a gentleman named Carlos Beaubien, who was actually a French-Canadian fur trapper, fell in love with the Spanish lifestyle and married a Spanish woman. In doing that he got the idea, as we were just coming off the Mexican American War, to petition Mexico to set aside some land. The idea was that you would bring people to this land to build communities and improve the landscape and settle so that they would have a larger settlement. As part of that land grant, Carlos Beaubien and his wife’s community set out to bring farmers and new families to the area. Where they settled is along the Culebra River. The Culebra starts high in the mountains on Culebra peak, it runs in the upper part of the Culebra watershed, which is very forested, and a 14,000-foot peak. As it works down through the community, the communities chose to use the acequia idea of irrigation. That idea comes from the Moors, and ultimately from Spain, and what it means is that the entire community is only benefited when all resources are shared. They chose the resources that they felt were very important, like the land and the water, and within that community, they never saw those two things separated.

What that meant for them was that they settled the lower part of the Culebra Basin in long strips that were made up of varas. They measured these strips out, and they ran them from upland to upland in long strips. The idea was that you would put your home and barns in the drier sage country and then you would have that middle area where you would graze cattle or raise crops. You obviously had river access so that you and your community could take some of that water from the river and push it through your acequia to water your family, and also so you could grow your gardens for food and work with any livestock in the area that would also need water. Farmers tended to have these very long strips of land, and today much of the Culebra Basin is settled in these strips. If you think about a strip of land that runs for as much as two miles long but is maybe 150 to 200 feet wide, that is kind of how these were settled. These are kept in place using rock walls, so you still find these little rocks that line up along these property lines. Then flash forward to today. The community in San Luis is probably one of the most economically disadvantaged counties in the state. In this area we see an average income of about $17,000. For all the poverty that exists there, each one of these families own their land. With most us, we go out and hunt for a job that allows us to pay for our house and to pay for our property, but that is not the case with a good number of these folks. Their families have been on that ground from anywhere between four and seven generations and were originally part of that land grant. This means they are land rich and cash poor.  When we first started our work there, the community identified a few needs that they felt were important and they needed to resolve. Perhaps one of the most important was that, acequias were not recognized legally in the State of Colorado unless they had a set of bylaws.

The Acequia Association worked with Legislators to create the Acequia Recognition Law. Essentially what it said, was that these people have the right to have the water delivered in time and amount at the headgate. Once it left the headgate, they were on their own to share that water. They used the traditional structure to ensure that everyone along the water’s way received their water. With the advent of that there was one caveat in that legislation, and it said that the law can only protect your acequia if you create a set of bylaws. The gap that the community identified was that nobody had these written bylaws. They all had oral traditions of how the water would move from one property to another. As those properties were sold, and folks that hadn’t been there bought them, those traditions weren’t known, and so they used the water improperly and it caused a whole lot of hate and discontent within the community. What we did was help the Acequia Association build a partnership between Colorado Open Lands, CU Boulder Law School, and work with any acequia that wanted to develop a set of bylaws. The bylaws were still based in large part on those oral traditions and included protective language that said if a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that the acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights. It also ensures how they are administering that water and how that water is moved from one property to another. It gives a set of bylaws not only for the different individuals to understand but also if there is a legal battle. The legal battle happened when a husband and wife had been there forever, but decided to get a divorce, and the judge said, ‘wife you get the water rights, husband you get the ground’. That was probably one of the biggest reasons that folks are still working to get their bylaws completed. Our bylaws program is in its 6th year, we’ve helped 42 out of the 76 acequias write bylaws, and in that way, we are legally protecting their right to the water. Sixteen of the original water rights in Colorado originate on those acequias. We’ve helped them put on an annual gathering of acequia irrigators called the Congreso de Acequias. We started an initiative to ensure that there landscape values were protected using the conservation easement as a tool. We originally placed three conservation easements within the Culebra Basin prior to 2016. We worked with partners from the LOR Foundation, Western Rivers Conservancy and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and NRCS to develop a plan to help place conservation easements on a variety of those properties in the Culebra Basin. This Regional Conservation Partnership Program included a variety of funders and partners and to date we are getting ready to close eight of them, which will be over 2,000 acres that will be moved into conservation easement. Since that started, we’ve had a lot of affirmation from the community and we just proposed another RCPP program to place an additional 2,900 acres into conservation easement. The easements ensure that the land will never be subdivided, the water never separated, the mineral estate never developed and the amazing wildlife corridors and viewsheds will continue in perpetuity. It will help ensure that the historic/ethnic traditions that have gone on there will continue to be there.

Can you talk to me about how acequias and your work with them fits into or along with the ideas of Environmental Justice and Equity?

One of the biggest issues that came from this area of the world, came when Beaubien brought those folks up, and said ‘You’ll have the lowlands for your homes and grazing, and the mountains will always be yours to use for timber for your homes, or for gathering firewood.’ That idea was part of that original land grant doctrine. Beaubien, before he died, had sold the upper portion of that land to Governor Gilpin of Colorado. On his death bed, he ensured that they still had the rights to the mountain. Folks that grew up there until the late 1960s still used the mountain in that way, even though it was in private ownership. They had their lands down below and would take their cattle up, gather their firewood all on what is Culebra Peak. In the late 1960s that land was sold, and it was sold to a gentleman named Jack Taylor. Jack Taylor came in and he started putting up fences, and then the fight began. So, they were locked out of what was traditionally their homeland. Through a 40-year court battle, they finally got their rights back to the mountain. I think it is a great story of justice that finally came back to some folks. This battle helped solidify their resolve to continue their long-standing traditions. Our work has helped ensure that the hard-won battle by land grant heirs remains. Our work to support this includes Colorado Open Lands easement work forever keeping the communities resource values intact, the bylaws project which ensures the oral tradition of the acequias remains in use and finally, the Upper Culebra Watershed Assessment. When the 2002 drought hit, and then the subsequent years of drought, drove the acequia communities to a point where they had to understand a variety of resource issues. Issues like a huge beetle infestation or overgrazed conditions because we put our cattle up here and its been dry, and the question was asked, ‘how can we fix this?’ Because, we are ruining a resource that not only threatens our ability to take our cattle up there, but if a fire comes, it’s a detriment to the entire 300 families. We facilitated a conversation that was led by the Costilla County Conservancy District that brought in partners from the Land-Rights Council (the folks who fought that 40 year battle), from the Acequia Association, who work day to day on acequia water rights, and the Vega Board who oversee a commons area in the bottom where folks bring their cattle. They’ve worked with the new landowner William Harrison to develop a watershed assessment, to begin to repair what has gone on up there over the last 12 years. That assessment will begin the summer of 2020 and from those assessments the community will have some projects that will ultimately be in place and will ensure this acequia community. I’m really proud of them and the way that they came together. Not only are they protecting their tradition, but they are also protecting the land that they love so much.

I was reading about the San Luis Valley Conservation and Connection Initiative; it looks like Colorado Open Lands is part of that program and I’m wondering if you can speak to it at all?

There are three key partners with the LOR Foundation, there is the Rio Grande Headwaters Trust, Western Rivers Conservancy, and then Colorado Open Lands. We had all been knocking separately on LOR’s funding door and Jake Caldwell, who is their regional person, and asked, ‘why don’t you guys spend a year, and we’ll give you a little bit of money,’ and he asked the question: ‘If you had money what would you do with it?’ Together the three groups held an extensive stakeholder process to better understand the San Luis Valley’s needs. It was decided that not only would we work toward doing some great land conservation that preserves key wildlife corridors, wet meadow complexes, and river corridors, but it would also look at recreation, and how could we get folks out more on the river and on these conserved lands. Then there was this other side that we kept hearing from nonprofits in the valley, operational money just to keep the doors open, the lights on, and pays a salary, is difficult money to get. Together we asked the LOR Foundation for 2 million dollars to do just that, to provide opportunities to the San Luis Valley’s small non-profits. We did this over four years to help them build capacity and sustainability. We just wrapped up that program that we are super proud of. We were able to give out approximately 35 grants over that time and we allowed grantees to come back multiple years. We were able to create some great education that went on in the valley, we addressed some critical access issues that were going on. We built a lot of boat ramps, a few vault toilets, and a lot of trails, and saw a lot of kids out on the landscape, which is really awesome. In the end, what we are most proud of is that now, not only are these groups of folks more sustainable but now they have learned the value of partnering. Within each one of these communities, they learned how to partner, how to develop a stronger 501. Ultimately for us, we did a whole lot of conservation. In total around 28,000 acres that is now conserved, a big portion of it has public access.  And In Costilla County especially, where 98 percent of the county is privately owned, it gave them just over 20,000 acres of area to recreate in and enjoy. That is environmental justice.

Are there any particular challenges you see pertaining to EJ within your work in the San Luis Valley?

I think probably one of the biggest issues that we face going forward is our groundwater deficit. The San Luis Valley has been a farming community, a rich farming community; I love to brag on it. We are the number two fresh potato producer in the country. We’ve got this really diverse agriculture economy, but our problem, like a lot of places, is we are an over-appropriated basin. When 2002 hit it started to change, then when we went into an extended drought. At one point the San Luis Valley was a place that if you drove through you could see standing water on the sides of the road. Farmers and ranchers would literally have to pump the water in order to harvest and plant so there was always some sort of draining. I don’t think anyone ever imagined that we would be damaging our aquifer or would know what the effects of a prolonged drought might mean. We saw this huge decline in our aquifer, and I think that is probably our biggest challenge. When drought comes on, sprinklers tend to come on too, and they did. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the State Engineer turned his head this direction, and said ‘you guys either figure out a way to fix this or I’m going to come down and shut your wells off.’ Subsequent to that, we’ve had communities working together. We’ve got six subdistricts that are working to become operational to address our groundwater withdrawal issues and the State Engineer’s mandate to restore that aquifer. We’ve been doing a lot of innovation to address and ensure that our farms and ranches stay, that our river corridors are strong, that our wildlife corridors remain, and everything else that depends on water. Subdistricts have been one method. Rio Grand Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands have partnered to look at some different possibilities for easements, and we’ve asked, ‘Is it possible to do easements on groundwater use?’ The idea is to create a myriad of tools in the toolbox, that many different groups can use as we work not only to correct our aquifer decline, but as we go through these uncertain climate shifts.

What are some tips or strategies that you give to those who want to get involved with local projects? Are there any lessons in equity that we could learn from looking at acequia communities?

I think that the biggest tip that I could give to anyone, whether you are working in the San Luis Valley, or you’re working in some other valley in some other place, is to listen to the community. Give them a chance to really talk about the reasons why their community is important. They are going to tell you what they value most. No project works without really truly understanding what a community values and where they want to go. I think that would be the one thing I would tell folks to do before they start a project: to really listen.

I think the most profound piece of it all is that acequia farmers built their whole communities on the idea of sharing their assets equally. You can be a landowner with 500 acres or you could be a landowner with one acre, and it has always been a part of the tradition, that one landowner equals one vote. They value every person and their stake in the community, and I think that is a very key piece when we begin to talk about equity. Because everybody’s voice has the same power. When you consider that idea, it is really the meaning of social justice.