#ColoradoRiver: The fall 2015 issue of Headwaters Magazine is hot off the presses from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education


Click here to go to read the issue online. From the website:

Revered and manipulated, cherished and disregarded, the Colorado is a lifeline and an overallocated system exacerbated by drought. Explore this defining moment on the Colorado, fact check some assumptions about the river, and read about ways that Colorado is taking proactive steps to shore up contingency plans for water shortage. Flip through or download the issue here.
Want to receive Headwaters? Send us an email for your free copy. Better yet, support Headwaters and water education by donating to the Headwaters Fund or becoming a member of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

CFWE Webinar: Agriculture and Water Scarcity—Managing Groundwater Declines

From the Colorado Foundation for Water Education:

Register now to join us December 10 from 9-10 AM for a webinar on managing groundwater for agriculture.

Water is an essential ingredient for productive agriculture, but not always easy to come by in semi-arid Colorado. Some of the state’s most significant agricultural producing regions rely on groundwater levels that are in decline. As water tables drop, the threat of limited water availability puts the state’s agricultural producers and rural communities at risk. Join us to explore solutions to sustain groundwater aquifers that can support agriculture for the long term. Click here to register.

Topics will include state administration, as well as locally guided efforts to address the legal threats of well shut-downs and physical limits of shrinking aquifers. We’ll take a statewide look at the issue, then focus on management approaches, local perspectives, and on-farm adaptations farmers are making to remain viable in the Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin.

We’ll hear from and have the opportunity to ask questions of speakers:

Kevin Rein, Deputy State Engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources
Sheldon Rockey, Rockey Farm and Board Member with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District
Deb Daniel, General Manager, Republican River Conservation District

This webinar is brought to you through a partnership between the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and CoBank.

Groundwater movement via the USGS
Groundwater movement via the USGS

#Colorado unveils the #COWaterPlan

From the Colorado Foundation for Water Education:

This morning [November 19, 2015] the final version of Colorado’s Water Plan was presented to Governor Hickenlooper. This final plan comes after a long history of water development in the state, a decade of state-coordinated cooperation between and within Colorado’s river basins and a 2013 directive from Governor Hickenlooper setting the Colorado Water Conservation Board on a hard-working fast-paced course to develop the water plan. The plan is a roadmap that intends to put the state and its eight major river basins on a more collaborative and cooperative path toward managing water in the face of constrained supplies and growing population.

Colorado’s population is predicted to grow exponentially, rising from around 5.4 million people in 2014 to between 8.3 and 9.1 million by 2050, according to predictions by Colorado’s State Demographer, as reported in the Colorado’s Water Plan issue of CFWE’s Headwaters magazine. If population grows as expected, and the state continued to fill those emerging needs without planning, the status quo would result in a water supply gap of up to 500,000 acre-feet by 2050, leaving the equivalent of some 2.5 million people’s water needs unmet, or met in undesirable ways. Then pile on the challenges of rising temperatures, drought, the unpredictability of climate change, and others… and the state’s water future looks increasingly uncertain.

So Colorado’s Water Plan set out to grapple with those water supply challenges and today reflects agreement from water interests statewide on broad, near-term actions needed to secure Colorado’s water future, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Those actions include efforts to conserve and store water, additional water reuse and recycling, and providing options to agriculture to avoid permanent dry-up of farm and ranch operations. The plan includes a set of measurable objectives that provide goals regarding water for farms, for the environment, and for cities and industry. The Denver Post reports:

The plan contains:

• A water-saving target of 130 billion gallons a year for cities and industry, left largely on their own to cut water consumption using methods from low-flow appliances to limits on lawn irrigation.

• A goal of increasing reservoir and aquifer storage space for 130 billion gallons and encouraging re-use of wastewater.

• A framework for assessing possible unspecified new trans-mountain diversions of water from the western side of the Continental Divide, when conditions permit, to Front Range cities and suburbs.

• A proposal to develop stream and river protection plans to cover 80 percent of “critical watersheds” by 2030.

• A strategy for slowing the loss of irrigated agricultural land as Front Range utilities buy up water rights — which state officials said threatens 700,000 more acres, or 20 percent of currently irrigated acres statewide. The strategy is to facilitate temporary transfers during wet years with farmers and ranchers retaining water ownership.

• A goal of linking county land use planning with water supply planning so that, by 2025, 75 percent of residents live in communities where new development is tied to water availability.

• Proposals for streamlined permitting of water projects designated by state planners for official support.

And so implementation will begin, and as the state moves forward, the plan will continue to be a living document that will adapt to ever-changing circumstances. From ABC News:


State government doesn’t have the power to force the plan on anyone. Instead, it will depend on the help of local governments, water utilities and farmers and ranchers. The Legislature would also have to pass laws and appropriate money, and the executive branch would have to steer some of the initiatives.

The plan would also require cooperation between the eastern and western halves of the state, which are often at odds over water.

Still, the plan holds promise, said Jim Lochhead, manager of Denver Water, the state’s largest utility.

“The Colorado water plan is our state’s best hope for a secure water future,” he said.

Be sure to read the full plan here, stay involved as implementation begins, and thank the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Governor Hickenlooper for taking action toward a secure water future.


Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today was joined by James Eklund, Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Director, Dr. John Stulp, Senior Adviser to the Governor, CWCB Board members and many members of Colorado’s water community to celebrate the completion of Colorado’s Water Plan, calling the project a historic step for the state.

The plan is the product of an unprecedented level of collaboration and public participation spanning two and a half years.

“This is how Colorado works: together, in partnership, to tackle head-on our toughest challenges,” said Hickenlooper. “Today we turn a new page on Colorado’s long and adversarial history on water. Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms and incomparable environment.”

In the spring of 2013, Hickenlooper directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop Colorado’s Water Plan, a roadmap that would put the state and its eight major river basins on a more collaborative and cooperative path to manage our water in the face of constrained supplies and growing population.

The Plan reflects grassroots discussions that began with the Basin Roundtable process in 2005. Key to the plan’s success, too, has been the steady participation and counsel of water providers, agricultural organizations, environmental groups, the General Assembly, local governments and the business community as well as more than 30,000 public comments geared specifically to Colorado’s Water Plan since 2013.

The completed Plan represents the consensus view from this process that Colorado must take a strategic, proactive and statewide approach to water or face or risk leaving the fate of our water to decisions and actions from outside interests, the federal government and other states within the Colorado River Basin.

“This is a moment for Coloradans to be proud,” said James Eklund, director of the CWCB. “For 150 years water has been a source of conflict in our state. More recently, that story is changing, and Colorado’s Water Plan – a product of literally thousands of meetings and conversations across our state – is the best evidence yet for a new way of doing our water business. We are talking to one another. We are forging relationships. Even those who may see water-related issues from very different perspectives have worked hard to understand other points of view. And that kind of understanding leads to an environment of civility that helps us cooperate in fashioning solutions.”

Colorado’s Water Plan grapples directly with water challenges and highlights necessary near-term actions, including efforts to conserve and store water, additional reuse and recycling of water and providing more options to agriculture to avoid permanent dry-up of our valuable farm and ranch operations. It also sets out a framework for discussion of any future projects that may propose to move water between basins.

The final version of the plan, building on comments across interests and geography, includes a set of measurable objectives that help us move forward and provide a sense, statewide, of the goals Colorado should set for addressing our water challenges.

“Colorado’s Water Plan leaves no mystery as to what Colorado’s water challenges are and why we have to address them as we grow the next five million people in the state,” said Jim Pokrandt, chairman of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “It is now up to all of us to take this information and fashion a balanced approach to meeting the water supply gap while protecting current water users on the Colorado River system, the West Slope’s recreational economy and the environment.”

“We all need to be willing to experiment, try new ideas, and even be willing to fail,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager of Denver Water. “The important thing is that this is our opportunity to move the state forward to chart a path toward water security.”

For more information, please visit http://coloradowaterplan.com/

From 9News.com (Maya Rodriguez):

“Water’s not just one of our most valuable natural resources, it is, without question, our most valuable resource,” Hickenlooper said during the official release of the final water plan.

While the plan is complete, a number of the recommendations will need a law to make them a reality.

“There’s going to be issues around funding for some of the implementation we’re going to need the legislature’s help to make sure we have the right funding in the right places,” the governor said.

That means the upcoming legislative session could see some of the plan’s suggestions come up as proposed bills.

“In the short-term, near-term here, we need to address funding of water infrastructure in Colorado. We need to address conservation,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which helped shape the plan.

So far, leaders aren’t specifying which recommendations may come up in the session.

“Better not to come up with specific requests until I’ve had a chance to talk to legislative leadership,” Hickenlooper said.

There’s also the question of how to fund potential water projects. The plan itself calls for a potential $20 billion in infrastructure work and programs during the coming decades.

“We’re certainly going to see all the details as we go forward, different suggestions for funding, but at a large price tag for not only environmental needs, but for infrastructure needs, we’re going to have to become innovative in how we look at this funding source,” said Abby Burk, with Audubon Rockies.

Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water
Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

The final version of the Colorado Water Plan, unveiled Thursday in a standing room only Denver press conference, has some interesting, if uncertain, implications for the Northern Integrated Supply Project.

The plan is Colorado’s first statewide attempt to confront a projected water supply shortage of 560,000 acre-feet — enough to fill Horsetooth Reservoir three and a half times — by 2050.

Sources were reluctant to speculate on whether the plan’s water storage goals — adding 400,000 acre-feet of storage by 2050 and an 80 percent success rate for a group of proposed storage projects that includes NISP — mean the state will back NISP. The state cannot legally give NISP a thumbs-up until federal review of the long-debated proposal is complete.

But the pro-storage aspect of the plan, coupled with the state’s suggestions for increased permitting efficiency for large-scale storage projects like NISP, means the state is not openly opposed to this kind of project. That lack of opposition on principal could bode well for Northern Water’s plan to create two reservoirs yielding 40,000 acre feet of water annually to 15 participants. Most of the water would come from the Poudre River.

“They recognize the need for 400,000 additional acre-feet of storage,” Northern Water general manager Eric Wilkinson said. “We feel that NISP … would help meet a significant portion of that goal.”

Colorado’s government has two points of entry for NISP: The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and the Colorado Water Conservation Board have to review and approve a Northern Water-produced fish and wildlife mitigation plan for the project. Wilkinson said that process is in the early stages.

And the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment decides whether to grant the project a 401 certification, a safeguard measure for states to block dams and diversions if they interfere with the health of wetlands. The 401 certification process will come after — and if — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rules in favor of building NISP…

Groups including American Rivers, Audubon Rockies, Conservation Colorado, the Environmental Defense Fund and Western Resource Advocates praised the plan for its urban conservation goal, river health focus, collaborative nature and action-oriented methodology.

“There’s a lot of kumbaya,” said Western Resource Advocates’ water policy manager Drew Beckwith, who also commended the plan’s “higher hurdles” for controversial trans-mountain diversion projects and push for funding to meet water goals. The plan projects a $20 billion funding shortfall during the next 30 years but estimates that water providers will meet most of it…

In an emailed statement, WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Rivers Program Director Jen Pelz said the plan isn’t all “unicorns and rainbows.”

“The plan tries to be all things to all people,” she wrote. “To meet the projected ‘gap’ in Colorado water supply and demand, all water users need to be at the table in order to solve the problem. Even though agriculture uses 80 percent of the water from our state, somehow water leasing and acquisition programs to make up shortfalls or put water back in our rivers are not strongly committed to in the final plan.”

Rather, the plan sets a goal to share at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water with municipalities via voluntary alternative transfer methods by 2030…

Carlyle Currier, vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and vice chairman of the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance, said the absence of a conservation goal for agriculture was intentional. Agriculture focuses on efficient use of existing water supply rather than conservation, which Currier described as “doing less with less.”

“That’s not really an option with agriculture,” he said. “If you’re using less water, you’re producing less crops. Is that really what our goal should be? Producing less?”

Now that the plan is completed, the Colorado Water Conservation Board will oversee the completion of the plan’s critical action items. The board will provide annual progress reports to the governor and the Colorado General Assembly.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Megan Schrader):

“Water in the West isn’t rocket science,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It’s more complicated, and it can be more volatile.”

Eklund said that like President John F. Kennedy, who set a goal for rocket scientists to reach the moon within a decade, the water plan sets a lofty expectation of bridging the gap of an estimated 500,000-acre-feet shortfall of water in 2050.

“It’s clear that without the vision, courage and the will of the chief executive, it wouldn’t have happened,” Eklund said. He thanked the governor for initiating the water planning in the spring of 2013.

The plan, however, isn’t binding to anyone or anything.

Hickenlooper called on everyone to pick up their portion of the plan and run with it.

Lawmakers will likely address some of the issues during the 2016 legislative session that begins Jan. 12. He asked lawmakers to draft bipartisan legislation that can realistically be passed in a bicameral General Assembly.

“We all share the responsibility of implementation,” Hickenlooper said. “Of taking all of this work and making sure that it is transformed into meaningful action.”

He said all Colorado water users need to rethink their consumption.

“My son and I last night discussed the length of showers,” he joked.

From WesternSlopeNow.com (Julia Maguire):

Hannah Holm, the coordinator of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, has followed the plan’s development since 2013. As 80 percent of the the state’s water lies on the Western Slope, Holm said the Western Slope had two major concerns for the plan.

The first: will agriculture areas be dried up to go urban areas? Holm said the plan is attempting to implement tools for alternative transfer methods, which is when farms provide a portion of water on a temporary basis to urban areas, instead of selling water rights permanently. Holm said this prevents buying out and drying up specific pieces of land.

The second: transmountain diversion, where water is taken from the Western Slope and brought to the Eastern Slope. Holm said the plan does not contain any endorsement for any project like it.

From The Greeley Tribune (Catherine Sweeney):

After years of preparation, the Colorado Water Plan was released on Thursday, and local water officials are pleased.

The plan lays out the state’s water policy goals: more conservation and more storage. Instead of legislating, the plan is designed to get leaders at all levels on the same page about Colorado’s water future.

“Everybody’s happy today,” said Northern Water Spokesman Brian Werner. “This is a good thing.”

Northern Water is a public agency that services about 880,000 people in northern Colorado and supplies irrigation water for 640,000 acres of farmland.

“The part that we’re most pleased with is the piece about storage,” Werner said.

Northern is involved in the federal permitting process for two proposed projects: the Windy Gap Firming Project and Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP. These two projects jointly include three new storage reservoirs in northern Colorado.

He said he’s hoping the plan will encourage officials to work with the federal government to update the permitting process for projects such as NISP and Windy Gap. Now, the processes are expensive and time consuming.

“We’re going to be (spending) 12-15 years on these projects,” he said.

Time is of the essence when it comes to water supply in the West.

With its growing population, Colorado faces a shortfall of about 182 billion gallons a year by 2050, according to state projections.

The plan will set specific goals for water storage and conservation, which environmental experts herald.

“Coloradans overwhelmingly support water conservation, and we are pleased to see this plan proposing our state’s first ever urban conservation goal,” Theresa Conley of Conservation Colorado said in a news release. “The plan recognizes that to meet our future water needs we must change the status quo from focusing on new, large trans-mountain diversions to prioritizing conservation, reuse and recycling. We look forward to the governor moving forward and carrying out our state’s water plan to better protect our rivers and wildlife.”

It will also propose a way to let farmers and ranchers sell their water to municipal utilities for a specific length of time but allow them to resume using that water themselves in the future. That would avoid a practice called “buy and dry,” where utilities buy farms and ranches to get their water, permanently taking the land out of agricultural production.

The plan encourages local governments to combine their water planning and land use planning to reduce outdoor uses such as lawn watering and encourage water recycling.

It also encourages management plans for rivers and streams to keep their ecosystems healthy.

Gov. John Hickenlooper started the process in spring 2013, according a release from his office. He directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop Colorado’s Water Plan, a road map that would put the state and its eight major river basins on a more collaborative and cooperative path to manage water in the face of constrained supplies and growing population.

State government doesn’t have the power to force the plan on anyone. Instead, it will depend on the help of local governments, water utilities and farmers and ranchers. The legislature also would have to pass laws and appropriate money, and the executive branch would have to steer some of the initiatives.

From The Colorado Statesman (Kelly Sloan):

“Russell George was instrumental in developing the bill, HB 1177, which established the basin roundtables and started the process of each basin talking to the others,” Treese said. He added that there was still much work to be done. “It is a milestone, not the end result, of Russell’s vision.”[…]

The plan is non-binding, and Eklund said it will require several legislative, executive and perhaps even judicial actions to implement it, noting that Colorado is the only state in the country with a water court.

Hickenlooper agreed that the Legislature will have to play a part but stopped short of suggesting any specific bills. “I have learned over the last several legislative sessions that it is better not to come up with specific legislation until I speak to legislative leadership,” he said. However, he acknowledged that there will be “issues around funding and around projects that we will need legislative help on.”

Eklund spoke to a number of potential areas where the General Assembly could take action. During the press conference, he noted a bill signed by the governor two years ago, SB 14-103, to phase in high-efficiency water options for indoor water and suggested that a bill to expand that to outdoor water fixtures could be a possibility.

Eklund said that funding was likely to be the biggest legislative issue. He said that one action that could be pursued is a measure to provide “agility to the Conservation Board to fund infrastructure projects,” saying that, “if your issue isn’t protected in the constitution, the funding for it gets squeezed out by other items.” He added that, in order to implement the various aspects of the water plan, “We need that agility quickly.” He said the Board would use new funding to deploy loans and grants to individual districts for projects. He also noted, “Water has to be a part of any TABOR fix.”

Another potential legislative measure could include what Eklund called “more market competitive alternatives to ‘buy-and-dry’” transactions.

John McClow, a CWCB board member and representative for the Gunnison-Uncompahgre River District, said that he thinks that it may be premature for the upcoming session to take much action on the plan.

“We need a chance for legislators to digest this,” McClow said. “We need to get the big picture, and make sure that everyone’s interests are represented in the conversations. We don’t want to be helter-skelter on this.”

Former state Sen. Gail Schwartz agreed, saying the state needs to be very thoughtful. Calling the plan a “working document”, she said, “The General Assembly needs to be careful how it weighs in.” On the funding issue, Schwartz, whose senate district covered a large part of the inter-mountain West Slope, including Eagle, Gunnison and Pitkin Counties, said that severance tax needed to be part of the conversation.

“We need to protect severance tax, especially as we see it diminish,” she said, adding that severance funds “need to be put into water infrastructure.”[…]

Early reactions to the plan were generally favorable, including a statement from Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Brough. “I applaud the Colorado Water Conservation Board for leading a truly collaborative process that took feedback from business and the broader community and integrated it into the plan,” she said, adding that “the planners recognized there is no silver bullet to facing this challenge and take a holistic, all-of-the-above approach.”

Craig Mackey, co-director of Protect the Flows, a nonpartisan business coalition advancing water conservation, innovations and technologies, said in a statement, “We congratulate the governor and the Colorado Water Conservation Board on the release of this plan, an important first step in managing and conserving Colorado’s most precious resource.”

Acequias, GMOs and bioregional autonomy | Report on the condition of agriculture in Costilla County, Colorado

Here’s Part 1: Ecological, Cultural & Historical Background (Devon G. Peña):

Moderator’s Note: This is the first in a three part series plus a source bibliography. The author is Co-Founder and President of The Acequia Institute and prepared this report during August- September 2015. The report is intended as a contribution to local agricultural, scientific, and environmental education for Costilla County residents, farmers, and public officials. The information or views presented in this report do not reflect the official views or policies of The Acequia Institute or its Board of Directors and Officers or the University of Washington.

Geographical, Ecological, and Historical Context

Costilla County is in south central Colorado in an alpine desert steppe region known as the San Luis Valley (SLV); Figure 1 below. The county seat of San Luis is 60 miles north of Taos, New Mexico. Average annual rainfall is the same as California’s Death Valley (about 6 to 7 inches). The SLV steppe is ringed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (east) and the San Juan Mountains (west). The high country sustains deep snow pack used by farmers during the spring and summer snowmelt runoff season.

Emerging abruptly from the Valley floor, the frontal edge of the mountains presents dozens of peaks exceeding 3962 meters (13,000 ft) and 10 exceeding 4267 meters (14,000 ft) above sea level. The SLV intermountain ‘park’ itself has an average elevation of 2,407 meters (7,900 ft).

Fig. 1. San Luis Valley. In this perspective, S is on top. Costilla County is along the edge of the southeastern side of the Valley between the Sangre de Cristo sub-range known as the Culebra Mountains (on the E) and the Rio Grande (on the W); upper left quadrant within SLV on this map. Source: http://geogdata.scsun.edu.
Fig. 1. San Luis Valley. In this perspective, S is on top. Costilla County is along the edge of the southeastern side of the Valley between the Sangre de Cristo sub-range known as the Culebra Mountains (on the E) and the Rio Grande (on the W); upper left quadrant within SLV on this map. Source: http://geogdata.scsun.edu.

The rapid elevation gain means that nearly every major life zone in North America is represented within an average ten-mile walk from Upper Sonoran (or cold) Desert to alpine tundra above timberline. These environmental conditions result in an average growing season of 100 to 120 days but the region is home to a robust agricultural sector and also hosts a significant source of indigenous agrobiodiversity in the form of local land race cultivars including maize, bean, and pumpkin/squash varieties.

The SLV is within ancestral Ute first nation territory and members of the Capote bands hunted bison, mule deer, antelope, and elk across the high steppe well into the 1850s. Armed entry by white settler cavalry began during the same period with the establishment of Ft. Massachusetts (1852-58) near present day Ft. Garland and resulted in the permanent expulsion of the Ute people from the Valley.

Today, the Southern Ute tribal reservation is limited to 1059 square miles in an area centered around the vicinity of Ignacio, and due southeast of Durango, Colorado. This is about 181 miles due west from San Luis, Costilla County across the San Juan Mountains. Some descendants of Ute-Mexican marriages still reside in the Valley’s diverse Indo-Hispano, Chicana/o and Mexicana/o rural villages and communities.

La merced

The Mexican government issued the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1844 as part of a decades- long, liberal inspired process to confirm and secure Native Pueblo and community land grant rights involving common lands and private vara strips. The Colorado section of the grant is just north of the New Mexico border at Amalia-Costilla but strong cross-border family, social, and cultural ties prevail. The 1 million-acre land grant includes what today constitutes the entirety of the Culebra Mountain Range and associated acequia-irrigated agricultural bottomlands within Costilla County; see Figure 2 below.

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.
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.

The land grant (merced) led to the establishment of a diverse community of people whose ancestry can be traced to a bewildering amalgamation comprised of a minority of Spanish (mostly Mexican- or New Mexican-born Spaniards, or criollos) and a majority comprised of P’urhépecha, Tlaxcalteca, and Mestiza/o (Native Mexicans); Pueblo, Diné, and Jicarilla Apache (Native Americans); and Sephardic and other Mediterranean peoples; all of whom moved up from Mexico and New Mexico to permanently settle in the area comprising today’s Costilla and Conjeos County in Colorado as part of a combined native settler and indigenous diaspora.

These are deeply rooted place-based communities and many acequia farm families hail from mixed mestizo/o and genizaro (qua Christianized Indian) communities like Abiquiú which were established as ‘frontier border’ outposts when the area was still part of hotly contested New Mexico Territory prior to the U.S. invasion and usurpation of 1848. Pueblo intermarriages also run deep across the history of these families.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo essentially defined Mexicans that chose to remain north of the new border as part of a pre-existing indigenous population with distinct rights. This included rights to common and private property in land and water, preservation of native language(s) and dialects, and full U.S. citizenship status.

The customary laws associated with the exercise of these rights, many of which were actually rooted in Pueblo Indian and other indigenous cultural traditions, were abrogated and systematically violated during one of the most scandalous episodes in the history of colonial dispossession and enclosure of Native Pueblo and Chicana/o land grants (Ebright 1994). Northern New Mexicans faced the notorious Santa Fe Ring and San Luis Valley acequieros had the U.S. Freehold Land and Immigration Co. as principal interloping usurper.

This was all part of a violent process of illegal expropriation and appropriation of Mexican land grants, in violation of Treaty rights, and reshaped the political geography of land tenure in what are now the U.S. Southwestern states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona in addition to parts of the adjacent states of California, Texas, and Utah.

Despite cycles of enclosure and dispossession, the mostly mestiza/o and indigenous Culebra acequia villages established the first community irrigation ditch systems — or acequias — in the what is now the State of Colorado and did so well before the establishment of Colorado Territory (1861). The acequias are sustained to this day in part because of the power vested in militant attachment to the first 23 adjudicated water rights in the State, beginning with the San Luis Peoples Ditch which was dug by hand and draught animals in 1852.

Most of the upland common areas of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant have been privatized. The one exception involves 80,000 acres in northeastern Taos County that are managed by land grant heirs as a common property in the New Mexico stretch of the merced. These heirs established the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association (RCCLA) and eventually purchased the acres in 1942. Livestock grazing (mostly cattle) was the primary focus at the start of this community- based cooperative endeavor but in the 1950’s the land began to be seen for its unique recreational values. In 1983, visitors were given the opportunity to hunt, fish and camp in designated portions of the ranch.

‘La Sierra’ portion of the land grant comprising originally all of what is now Costilla County, Colorado is the watershed that pertains to our struggles, and it also comprises approximately 80,000 acres (as seen in Appendix 1). This section has been the subject of a protracted land rights case that dates back to 1981 and is a response to violation of due process rights provoked during the violent 1960 enclosure by a North Carolina timber man and land speculator by the name of Jack T. Taylor.

Today, the heirs and successors of the Culebra acequia farm villages have access to La Sierra for the exercise of some of the original historic use rights (no subsistence hunting or fishing are allowed). But this instance of usufruct occurs within the enclosed boundaries of a ranch property that is still privately owned, now by wealthy billionaire investors from Texas.

In a historic 2002 ruling addressing the famous Lobato v. Taylor land rights case, the Colorado Supreme Court restored historic use rights to the heirs and successors to the 80,000-acre Colorado common lands of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant (i.e., La Sierra). The veritable common lands of this merced, perhaps the largest to be restored in this manner anywhere in the world, are vital to the survival of the watershed-dependent acequia farmers and to the protection of the area residents’ strong sense of place and bioregional values. Some 500 families comprised of heirs and successors have access to the mountain range to gather fuel wood and construction materials and to use as pasture for livestock grazing.

Fig. 3. 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.
Fig. 3. 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.

Finally, absentee real estate speculators have ruthlessly subdivided the dry land llanos (prairies) of central and far western Costilla County and while most of these lots remain vacant, in 2015 conflicts arose over land use regulations governing permits for septic tanks and home construction, camping rights and other issues; see Figure 3 above. These conflicts are the long shadow cast by the legacy of the enclosure of the common lands of the Sangre de Cristo land grant; under local customary law these lands were never intended or considered appropriate to permanent settlement by humans. Many of the inhabited lots are close to industrial monocultures in center-pivot sprinkler circles, some sown with GMO crops that present a landscape of polka- dot uniformity (Peña 2005).

Acequia Systems

The acequias are gravity driven snowmelt dependent community irrigation ditches. They are also among the oldest collective action institutions as constituted by the practices of local self- governance by tribal and non-tribal indigenous peoples in the U.S. Southwest. This is especially evident in the Rio Arriba or Upper Rio Grande watershed where Pueblo Indian and Chicana/o communities of northern New Mexico and south central Colorado sustain the acequia institution across a nine county area.

Acequia flood irrigated technology and the civic association of farmers for self government tied to water allocation practices both are rooted in antiquity with parallel and interlaced origins in the kuhls of Kangra (India), as-Saquiyas of the Middle East (Yemen) and North Africa, acequias of Andalusia, Spain, zanjas of Mexico (and the Philippines), and KwVo of Native American ancestral civilizations including nearby historic Pueblo communities at Taos, Okay Owingeh (San Juan), and other northern Pueblos. Research scholars have long celebrated the acequia as a sustainable, equitable, and resilient irrigation technology and an effective institution of collective action for farmer-directed management of local water resources.

Fig. 4. San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Fig. 4. San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña

The acequia association is a self-organized instance of political and legal autonomy; Rivera (1998) has noted how in some cases the acequia is the only daily form of local government present in more remote and isolated mountain villages of New Mexico and Colorado. Acequias are widely celebrated as deeply rooted, time-tested “water democracies” and are considered a significant national and world heritage resource (Rivera 1998; Peña 1999, 2003, 2005; Hicks and Peña 2003, 2010; Rodriguez 2007).

In Colorado context, the customary common law of the acequia is “prior” to the dominant settler doctrine of prior appropriation, which arrived with Anglo settlers and specifically the hard rock miners of the ‘59er ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’ gold and silver rush. Acequia customary law and the post-territorial settler legal regime of prior appropriation are distinct and in many ways incompatible. For example, under acequia law voting rights on a given community irrigation ditch are based on the principle of “one irrigator, one vote”, which is indicative of an indigenous preoccupation with governance through consensus and equity.

In contrast, under prior appropriation, voting rights are allocated on the basis of proportional shares in the ditch (company) and this means that larger landowners tend to dominate governance and decision-making processes. Another key difference is that acequia customary practices for water allocation respect the ancient principle of “shared scarcity” while the prior doctrine imposes a newer inequitable system of priority calls in which only senior water rights receive water in times of drought.

Given this cultural, ecological, historical, and legal context, the Costilla County Land Use Code and the Costilla County Comprehensive Plan prioritized the adoption of rules and regulations to protect acequia farms and associated watershed values which are therein broadly construed as matters of legitimate state interest in order to promote the preservation of acequias as significant state and national cultural heritage resources; see Costilla County Land Use Code at §1.20.A.2 and Costilla County Comprehensive Plan at Policy ENR-14 (p. 24), Policy ENR-16 and Policy ENR-17 (p. 25).

These differences, and especially the historical status of acequia law as older than prior appropriation, were to some extent recognized and codified in 2009 when the Colorado legislature approved and the governor signed HB 09-1233, the Colorado Acequia Recognition Law. One local consequence of this new law is that the acequias are now able to act as bona fide sub-county consulting authorities involved in the review of county land use planning and zoning actions and regulations, especially those that impact watershed functioning in acequia-dependent agricultural communities like the Culebra watershed in Costilla County.
Testimony in support of the 2009 law recognized the value of the “ecosystem services” provided by acequias including the production of wetlands, creation of wildlife habitat and migration corridors, regeneration of soil horizons, and preservation of native agricultural biodiversity through the seed saving and plant breeding practices of acequia farmers (Peña 1999, 2003, 2005:81-85, 2009; 2015; Hicks and Peña 2003; Fernald, et al 2014).

Today, there are an estimated 200 acequias irrigating approximately 5000 farms distributed across the four counties of southern Colorado designated as eligible for inclusion under the 2009 law (Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano, and Las Animas). These farmers collectively irrigate some 70,000 acres of prime farmlands with significant additional acreage in wetlands created by the subsurface flows associated with acequia flood irrigation methods. Costilla County, the heart of acequia farming in Colorado, hosts 73 acequias managed by more than 350 family farmers who sustain 23,000 acres of field and row crops and more than 10,000 acres of sub-irrigated wetlands (Peña 2003; acreage estimates are based on official Costilla County Clerk data).

Part 2 | The Culebra Center of Origin and Diversity (Devon G. Peña):

Moderator’s Note: This is the second in a three part series plus a source bibliography. The author is Co-Founder and President of The Acequia Institute and prepared this report during August- September 2015. The report is intended as a contribution to local agricultural, scientific, and environmental education for Costilla County residents, farmers, and public officials. The information or views presented in this report do not reflect the official views or policies of The Acequia Institute or its Board of Directors and Officers or the University of Washington.

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
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

The Culebra Center of Origin and Agrobiodiversity

The acequia farmers of the southern SLV (Costilla and Conejos counties) are among the oldest non-tribal indigenous family farmers in the U.S. and are renowned for unique place-adapted heirloom land race maize, bean, and pumpkin/squash varieties.

These native crops are considered part of the land race populations of the extended Mesoamerican Center of Origin. The concept of ‘center of origin’ was first developed by the Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov who identified several distinct biogeographical regions across the globe that are home to the wild ancestors of crops domesticated and diversified by indigenous farmers over millennia and remain places where the co-evolution of crops and wild ancestors persists as a direct result of surviving indigenous cultural selection and agroecological practices [our emphasis].i[i]

According to noted ethnobotanist, Gary P. Nabhan:

In the U.S. Southwest and northwestern Mexico, much of the land is arid. Indigenous agriculture persists here, in some places beyond where conventional modern agriculture is successful. In addition to the reason usually given for genetic conservation to preserve for future generations genes that may make commercial crop varieties less vulnerable to stresses and maladies there are others worth considering with regard to native crops of this binational region. (1985: 387-8).

Nabhan illustrates how “Aridoamerica” is an overlooked center of origin and diversity. Vavilov’s travels included vast stretches of Aridoamerica where he searched for and identified dozens of native land race crops developed and sustained by indigenous farmers with at least 25 plant species in advanced stages of domestication cultivated since well before European invasion and conquest (Nabhan 2011).

Centers of origin are also centers of diversity. We propose that this includes the San Luis Valley. Nabhan appears to include the Upper Sonoran desert country of the San Luis Valley (SLV) as a northern periphery sub-basin of Aridoamerica (1988: 393). More recent scientific research by Matsuoka, et al. (2002) squarely places the SLV within the center of origin and diversity of maize; see Figure 5 below.

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).
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).

As a center of origin and agrobiodiversity, the Culebra watershed acequia farms are recognized, above all, for their contributions to heirloom maize diversity and for sustaining several vanishing artisan production methods and practices involving the use of native crops. This is especially true of a maize white flint variety known as maíz de concho.

The ethnobotany of this white flint maize, which is used to make chicos del horno (adobe oven- roasted corn), is still a matter of research in-progress and only a very few published sources are available (for e.g., see Peña 2015). The Upper Rio Grande Hispano Farms study (1995-99) — co-directed by Dr. Devon G. Peña with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH Grant RO-22707-94) and the Ford Foundation — included what is likely the first scientific field and lab research on the local white flint maize grown by acequia farmers in the Culebra watershed of Colorado.

The maize geneticist Ralph Bertrand-García of Colorado College did the field study in 1995. Bertrand-García (in-press) found that the white flint maize produced by the Corpus A. Gallegos amily in San Luis is a highly in-bred parent line, implying genetic purity and an absence of genes from commercial conventional hybrids. We note that when the field study was done there were no commercial plantings of GMO maize in the SLV.

Bertrand-García further suggests (in personal communication to the author) that Culebra maíz de concho shares morphological qualities and possibly gene sequence patches derived from ancient Anasazi corncob remnants found at sites across the desert Southwest (Mesa Verde, Chaco, Grand Gulch). Bertrand-García’s study supports oral histories in Costilla County declaring that the local white flint maize originally came from Anasazi ancestral maize populations via the modern-day Taos, San Juan, San Idelfonso, Picuris, and other northern Pueblos (Corpus A. Gallegos interview with Devon G. Peña, July 18, 1996; archived at The Acequia Institute). Today, seed exchanges with indigenous farmers in those communities continue.

The principal traits identified by Bertrand-García include three that are adaptive responses to conditions in high altitude cold desert environments with short growing seasons and late spring and early fall frosts. These include: (1) rapid development with average of 74-80 days to maturity (between sowing and harvesting); (2) resistance to desiccation and tissue damage from intense UV solar radiation at high altitude and early or late frosts; and (3) adaptation to diurnal temperature extremes with a daily average range between lows of 40°F and highs of 80°F during the growing season.

These qualities are significant traits, especially given the context of today’s climate change challenges. It would seem that the genomic integrity of the Culebra bioregional land race maize populations could be recognized as a national agrobiodiversity conservation priority.

Santistevan (2003) also describes the specific heirloom white flint used by acequia farmers as maíz de concho. Adopting the scientific name Zea mays clibanus for this population, he notes that the heirloom variety is grown in rotation or intercropped with maíz de diente, another local flint so named because farmers describe the kernels as “horse’s teeth”.

In our own field observations, we are seeing a variety of inbred parent lines as well as a constantly shifting mosaic of native chimera varieties incorporating morphological, adaptive, forage/biomass, nutritional, and culinary qualities valued by acequia communities. Some chimeras of two or more parent lines from local land races often have features expected separately in flint, dent, and flour maize land races. One of our own heirloom varieties, gifted to The Acequia Institute by Joe Gallegos of San Luis, Colorado, can be described as a “floury flint” because it can be used, depending on the timing of harvest, to produce chicos or pozol (hominy) as well as corn meal for masa harina through a process known as nixtamalization.ii[ii]

Chicos del horno has been listed by Slow Food USA as an endangered food in the Ark of Taste project. This designation includes concern for disappearing artisan craft skills to construct and maintain the crucial adobe ovens and place-based knowledge required to prepare the oven- roasted chicos for consumption or sale. Chicos remain a significant part of our “First Foods” and as an icon of our heritage cuisine. As such, chicos sit at the center of the ethnic foodways of bioregional acequiera/o culture.

Finally, maíz de concho varieties bred and sown by the acequia farmers of Costilla County bear living evidence of genetic affinity with wild ancestral forms. During the 2010 harvest cycle of maíz de concho at Almunyah de las Dos Acequias, the home of the Acequia Institute’s farm school and grassroots agroecological and permaculture field station, we sowed a seventh generation of Gallegos family heirloom white flint, the same parent line studied by Bertrand- García (in-press); we found two stalks that produced tunicate florescence instead of whole cob alignments of the maize kernels.

Figure 6 and 7 below present two images: First is a diagram from the classic study by Noble Laureate geneticist George W. Beadle (1980) on “The Ancestry of Corn”. In the diagram, (a) and (b) are designated ‘teocintle’; (c) is designated as a ‘tunicate’ (a mutation in which individual kernels remain aligned in separate single- or double-file instead of clustered on a cob); (d) is designated as a ‘primitive’ ear, and (e) is designated as ‘modern’ maize. Second is a photograph of the tunicate florescence that we keyed as an example of a tendency in our maíz de concho to revert back to wild ancestral forms. These occurrences are indicative of the close genomic affinity our in-bred land race varieties have with wild and intermediary relatives.

Fig. 6. Diagram of teocintle, tunicate, primitive, and modern maize. Source: Beadle (1980).
Fig. 6. Diagram of teocintle, tunicate, primitive, and modern maize. Source: Beadle (1980).
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. 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

The photograph in Fig. 7 above shows the tunicate white flint mutation from our own accession of the Gallegos family parent line of Culebra maíz de concho and was collected during the 2010 harvest at Almunyah de las Dos Acequias Farm in Viejo San Acacio. Comparing this mutation with Beadle’s 1980 diagram suggests that the occurrence depicted in Fig. 7 above is an example of the regression/mutation of a local land race to an intermediate wild stage. This is substantive evidence of the legitimacy of center of origin land race status for Costilla County maize varieties like Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho.

Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO Photograph by Devon G. Peña
Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO
Photograph by Devon G. Peña

i[i] See Nabhan 2011 for a detailed study of Vavilov’s journey through northwestern Mexico and the American Southwest, a bioregion Nabhan describes as “Aridoamerica”.
ii[ii] A process for the preparation of maize in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled; the process makes the lysine and other essential amino acids available to the human digestive system, maximizing the nutritional value of maize consumption, a point overlooked by many scientific specialists studying maize who repeat the mythic refrain about the malnourished state of so-called maize-dependent consumers.

State of the Rockies Project: The Great Divide showing Wednesday

From the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project:

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at 7:00 pm, Richard F. Celeste Theater, Cornerstone Arts Center
The Great Divide: The Destiny of the West is Written in the Headwaters of the Colorado

Jim Havey, Producer of The Great Divide, Havey Productions

The Great Divide, a feature length documentary film from the Emmy award winning team of Havey Productions, in association with Colorado Humanities, will illustrate the timeless influence of water in both connecting and dividing an arid state and region. From Ancient Puebloan cultures and the gold rush origins of Colorado water law to agriculture, dams, diversions and conservation; the film will reveal today’s critical need to cross “the great divide,” replacing conflict with cooperation. Producer Jim Havey will discuss the making of the film and answer questions after the showing.

Click here to read the Coyote Gulch review.

Third Annual Poudre River Forum, “Cultivating Connnections,” Friday, Feb 5, 2016


SAVE THE DATE! Friday, Feb 5, 2016

Next year, the Third Annual Poudre River Forum with the theme “Cultivating Connnections” moves to a weekday following up on the recommendations from the 2015 evaluations. We will return to The Ranch in Loveland.

Participants can look forward to an emphasis on water for agriculture with a panel facilitated by Luke Runyon from Harvest Media/KUNC. Also featured will be a panel of ecologists and engineers exploring how river infrastructure can be planned and/or managed to meet both human and ecological goals, with Coloradoan journalist, Kevin Duggan, facilitating. We’ll enjoy lunch together and finish our day with Odell brews, other refreshments, and bluegrass music from Blue Grama.

More program details and registration information coming in early December.

We are actively seeking sponsorships for this self-sustaining community event. If your company or institution is interested in this opportunity to show that they value bringing diverse voices and concerns together to learn about the Poudre River, please review the attached Sponsorship Letter and Form.

We welcome your inquiries at PoudreRiverForum@gmail.com.

Check out the updated CSU website for Poudre Runs Through It Study/Action Work Group (PRTI), which facilitates the Poudre River Forum. And “Like” PRTI on Facebook – thanks!