Conservation easements: The best way to protect Southern Colorado’s land and water from being dried up by urban development — The Pueblo Chieftain

Saguache Creek

From The Pueblo Chieftain editorial staff:

THE BEST way to protect Southern Colorado’s land and water from being dried up by urban development is the strategic use of conservation easements to preserve both environmental quality and the local economy.

Conservation groups already are investing wisely in preserving the environment, land and water in the San Luis Valley.

In the early years of this century, the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group, supplied the impetus to permanently protect the Baca Ranch from greedy water speculators by jump-starting the $30 million purchase of the ranch. Congress followed by establishing the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, thus preserving the valley’s great natural asset forever.

Other large ranches in the San Luis Valley are being protected by similar conservation efforts.

On Nov. 3, the Del Norte-based Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, Colorado Open Lands and the Western Rivers Conservancy announced creation of a $2 million San Luis Valley Conservation Fund. The goal is to take care of the land and water, as well as fish and wildlife habitat along the Rio Grande, through the valley.

Conservation will have a positive lasting effect on the San Luis Valley.

Now conservation groups need to cast their eyes east and north to the Lower Arkansas Valley. This agricultural region is living proof that farmers have been the first human contributors to conserving land and water of irreplaceable value to the economy, food production and natural wildlife habitat.

We appreciate the Palmer Land Trust’s promising plan that, in the trust’s own words, “focuses on a 1.75-million acre landscape in the western Lower Arkansas Valley. Delineated by the Arkansas River and its southern tributaries, the planning area extends from Canon City in the west to Rocky Ford in the east, and from the city of Pueblo in the north to Colorado City in the south.”

The Lower Arkansas Valley looks to Palmer Land Trust success and also needs others, such as the Nature Conservancy and Colorado Cattlemen’s Trust, to add their considerable weight to more extensive conservation easements.

Remember, farming and ranching are the most time-tested contributors to conservation of the environment — wildlife habitat, recreation and scenic vistas — that draw people to the beautiful state of Colorado.

The advantages of conservation easements are numerous, extending to farmers and ranchers, especially. They can receive outside income to commit to staying on the land in irrigated agriculture in perpetuity. It’s a great disincentive to settling for a one-time payoff from selling their permanent water rights to be transferred north to urban areas.

Conservation easements are a win-win proposition. Now we need the conservation experts to pitch in and help save the future of the Lower Arkansas Valley.

Right helps to restore [Alamosa] river — The Pueblo Chieftain

Alamosa River
Alamosa River

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Efforts to restore the Alamosa River passed another milestone earlier this month when the water court in the San Luis Valley signed off on an in-stream-flow right.

The decree issued to the Alamosa Riverkeeper allows the storage of up to 2,000 acre-feet in Terrace Reservoir that can be released after irrigation season when the dam’s headgates would otherwise be closed.

“The development of a fishery has already started to revitalize the local economy and reconnect the community to the river,” said Cindy Medina of Alamosa Riverkeeper.

Medina’s group, along with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, applied for the right.

The restoration of the fishery comes more than three decades after pollution from the Summitville Mine created a dead zone on a stretch of the river above the reservoir.

The cleanup of Summitville and the installment of a permanent water-treatment plant there thanks to federal stimulus funds in 2009 improved water quality above the reservoir to allow for fish stocking.

The return of the fishery even prompted Jose Trujillo to open a bait and tackle in Capulin.

“The locals are very excited to see what the fishing conditions will be in the lower part of the river near town,” she said.

The in-stream-flow right could allow the fishery to improve below the reservoir by providing water to the river after the end of the traditional irrigation season.

The group currently holds about 500 acre-feet and would have to buy more water to reach the limit of the right.

Medina said the flows, which have been operated on a temporary permit, have extended the river enough to reach Gunbarrel Road, which sits roughly a mile west of Capulin.

She’s hopeful that once the riverkeeper has bought enough water to fulfill the right it would extend the river another 4 miles outside irrigation season.

In addition to restoring the river, Medina said the in-stream flows also would bolster groundwater levels in the area.

She said that fact helped gain the support of the Terrace Irrigation Co., which owns the reservoir, and other irrigators in the area.

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

Rio Grande Basin: Nash Ranch next in line to be conserved — The Valley Courier

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Additional vital riverfront property is in the works to be permanently conserved along the Rio Grande.

Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT), which has already conserved more than 25,000 acres along the Rio Grande and its tributaries , is currently working with Wayne and Sharon Nash on a conservation easement for the 200-acre Nash Ranch near Del Norte in Rio Grande County.

RiGHT Executive Director Nancy Butler presented an initial proposal to the Rio Grande Roundtable, which will be followed by a formal proposal in January, for funding support for the Nash Ranch conservation easement. RiGHT is seeking $100,000 towards the estimated $560,000 easement total from local and statewide Water Supply Reserve Accounts, funds derived from severance tax funds set aside for water projects throughout the state. Of the $100,000 request, $10,000 would be requested from the Rio Grande Roundtable basin funds and $90,000 from water funds administered statewide through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB.)

The remainder of the funds for the easement would come from landowner donation, about $200,000, and $100,000 grants each from the Gates Foundation, which has already been secured, and from Great Outdoors Colorado, which has not yet reviewed or approved funding.

“We have been really fortunate to bring a good match to our projects,” Butler said.

CWCB staffer Craig Godbout shared the amounts of funds available in the basin and statewide accounts and estimated how much would be added to those accounts in January. He said the Rio Grande Basin’s fund balance currently is more than $318,000, and this basin roundtable should receive $120,000 additional funding in January, if the severance tax is fully funded. The statewide account currently contains about $1.9 million and will double in January if the severance tax trust fund is fully funded.

Godbout added that the CWCB will consider the next round of requests from around the state in March and he knows of more than $1.8 million worth of requests that will be coming before that statewide water board at that time.

Butler reminded the Rio Grande Roundtable group of the multiple benefits generated through conservation easements on properties like the Nash Ranch and others that have been conserved already, such as the Gilmore, 4UR, Rainbow Trout and Garcia ranches.

These easements protect working farms and ranches, which are permitted and encouraged under the easements to continue with their historic uses. The landowner still owns and manages the property but complies with some stipulations laid out in the conservation easement.

The easements provide wildlife habitat, preserve scenic landscapes and protect water, one of the primary focuses pertinent to the Rio Grande Roundtable’s mission. The easements also protect the land from development.

Butler explained that all of the easements completed through RiGHT have been voluntary and incentive based. The Nashes approached RiGHT with a desire to protect their land and water, Butler added.

Natural arch in lava flow near Del Norte via the USFWS
Natural arch in lava flow near Del Norte via the USFWS

Rio Grande Basin: Water rules receive no opposition — yet — The Valley Courier

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

So far, the only “statement of objection” filed in connection to the proposed Rio Grande Basin groundwater rules is one in favor of them.

Because of the way the response process is set up, all reactions to the rules must be submitted as “statements of objection.” However, “statements of objections” may be submitted in support of the rules.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said on Monday the only response filed so far in regard to the basin groundwater rules was a “statement of objection in support” by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

He said no objections against the rules have yet been filed.

During a recent water meeting Pat McDermott from the Division 3 office explained that if there are no objections to the rules as written, they will move forward through that meticulously worked its way through the rules over the course of about six years to try to iron out any problematic “wrinkles” in the rules before they were promulgated.

The public has also been involved during that process, with all of the advisory group meetings open.

Wolfe officially filed the groundwater rules on September 23 at the Alamosa County courthouse. The rules apply to hundreds of irrigation and municipal wells in the Rio Grande Basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. They set up the means to halt the drawdown of the Valley’s underground aquifers and restore the aquifers to more robust levels. They also are designed to protect senior surface water rights and Rio Grande Compact compliance. the water court for approval and implementation.

Objectors have a specific amount of time to file responses after the rules have been published. The rules have been published in newspapers as well as in the water court resume.

If there is opposition to the rules, the water division will try to work out issues with objectors short of a water court trial.

State Engineer Dick Wolfe is hoping to eliminate or at least minimize the number of objections to the rules and has gone to great lengths to accomplish that goal. He developed a large advisory group, for example, The rules are clear “that nothing in the rules is designed to allow an expanded or unauthorized use of water .”

The rules are also clear that they “are designed to allow withdrawals of groundwater while providing for the identification and replacement of injurious stream depletions and the achievement and maintenance of a Sustainable Water Supply in each aquifer system, while not unreasonably interfering with the state’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. The rules apply to all withdrawals of groundwater within Water Division No. 3, unless the withdrawal is specifically exempted by the rules, and the rules pertaining to the Irrigation Season apply to all irrigation water rights.”

McDermott reminded folks attending a recent Rio Grande Roundtable meeting that once the rules go into effect which could be sooner than later if there are no objections well irrigators will have a limited time to either join a water management sub-district or submit their own augmentation plans. Those measures will have to be taken in the next year or two.

By 2018, he added, the water division will have the ability to shut down wells that have not come into compliance under the rules.

“This is an exciting time,” he said. “It’s time for us to do the right thing. We have done it in Division 1 and 2, South Platte and the Arkansas, and it’s very important to get it down here.”

Part of the groundwater rules define the irrigation season for this basin, which ended in most parts of the Valley at midnight on November 1. Unless Cotten has good reason to decide otherwise, the irrigation season will run from April 1 to November 1 for all irrigators, including those using wells as their irrigation water sources.

See the full groundwater rules for the Rio Grande Basin at

On another note, McDermott said Colorado is in good shape with Rio Grande Compact compliance this year and may in fact over deliver the amount of water it is required to send downstream to New Mexico and Texas. This winter should bring a fair amount of moisture, McDermott added. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting above normal precipitation and slightly below normal temperatures for the next several months in this region.

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

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:
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:

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:
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:

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.

6 Places Where Melting Snow Means Less Drinking Water — National Geographic

Here’s a report from Brian Clark Howard writing for National Geographic. Here’s an excerpt:

Climate scientists have a pretty good idea what is going to happen to much of the Earth’s snow as the planet warms over the next century: It’s going to melt. But the melting will occur at different rates in different places, which has major implications for the 2 billion people who rely on snowmelt for water.

What’s more, over the next few decades, some areas are likely to see increased snow and rainfall as climate changes in complicated ways.

“Such confounding factors complicate how water managers will be able to respond to climate change,” says Justin Mankin, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

In order to help water providers better forecast their supply, Mankin led a team of scientists in a new study published Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Climate models were used to predict changes in rainfall and snowpack across basins in the northern hemisphere that supply water to large numbers of people. These areas include much of the American West, the Middle East, Central Asia, and southern Europe.

The scientists concluded that overall there is a 67 percent risk of less water available from snowpack by 2060. But over the next few decades, some regions face more risk than others.

In some areas precipitation could actually increase. That’s because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. Yet “the extent that people have the capacity to capture and use that water is a different matter,” says Mankin.

Snow’s Holding Power

Traditionally, when precipitation falls as rain only some of it can be captured in aquifers, lakes, and manmade reservoirs. When the moisture falls as snow, it often sticks to mountains for long periods of time, where it melts slowly, trickling down as a nearly steady water supply. (Read more about this process.)

“In the future, water managers are going to have to adjust to a decrease in the amount of water available from snowpack,” says Mankin. Strategies could include building more reservoirs, either above or below ground, tougher water conservation measures, desalination, deeper wells, or other plans…

The Colorado River Basin

Home to 11 million people, the Colorado River system fared only somewhat better in the analysis, with a decline in snowpack in 74 percent of the tests.

“Our water supply is not going to look the same in the future,” says Mankin. “We’re going to have to get innovative about what management practices really make sense.” (Read more about the embattled Colorado River.)

Rio Grande Basin

The Rio Grande Basin that straddles Mexico and the U.S. is home to 16 million people. Like the Central Valley, in 95 percent of the trials run through the climate models, the snowmelt runoff fell short of demand by mid-century.

Climate change, the Rio Grande forecast problem, and the death of stationarity — John Fleck

From InkStain (John Fleck):

[David] Gutzler is part of the New Mexico Universities Working Group on Water Supply Vulnerabilities, which has been working on identifying points of vulnerability in our societal-ecosystem-water system. One of their key findings, developed by Gutzler’s student Shaleene Chavarria, is that changes in the climate weaken the old forecast tools, which are used to relate winter snowpack to runoff the following year.