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San Luis hosts first Congreso de Acequias

Posted: Tuesday, Oct 9th, 2012

The San Luis Peoples Ditch at the Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. This is the oldest adjudicated water right in Colorado; the acequia was dug out by hand in April 1852. Photo courtesy of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association

Courier staff writer

SAN LUIS — For the first time in the state’s water history, acequia irrigators will come together for the 2012 Colorado Congreso de Acequias later this month in San Luis.

With help from Colorado Open Lands, a Lakewood-based land and natural resource protection group, the stories of Costilla County will be shared with those from other counties using acequias including Conejos, Huerfano and Las Animas. The Congreso, which is modeled after actions The New Mexico Acequia Association has taken over the past few years to protect the irrigation systems, aims to unite the acequia users and bring them information on laws and government, particularly the 2009 Colorado Acequia Recognition Law.

“There is some misinformation within the communities,” said Colorado Open Lands Specialist Sarah Parmar about the law. “There are people that have heard of the law and think that their water rights are now protected by the law. Whereas in reality, the law lays out a process by which they can become recognized. It doesn’t automatically protect them. People can take this information and make informed decisions.”

The Congreso will begin on Friday, October 19 with a welcome reception at Emma’s Hacienda on Main Street. Delmer Vialpando and Devon Peña, both of the Sangre de Cristo Water Association, and Costilla County Commissioner Crestina Martinez will kick off the event with hors de oeuvres and music beginning at 5 p.m.

On Saturday, the Congreso will start with a legislative update from Rep. Edward Vigil at 9 a.m. Following the update, acequia farmers from each county will discuss their local challenges and moderator and San Luis centennial farmer Joseph Gallegos will lead a discussion sharing issues and obstacles, such as abandonment and climate change.

“It will be very interesting for people to hear from other acequia communities,” Parmar said. “I think that there are a lot of perceived differences, but I also think there are actually a lot of common issues and challenges.”

The morning session will conclude with a presentation from water law professor Larry MacDonnell. He will discuss the legal challenges acequias face, using a real Costilla County case as an example. Peña and Greg Hicks will give background for and speak about the 2009 Colorado Acequia Recognition Law. Highlights of Peña and Hicks presentation include what the law means to an individual ditch and irrigator and actions that acequias must take in order to be recognized under the new law. Water attorney John McClure will speak about the legal differences between unincorporated ditches, mutual ditch companies and the Acequia Ditch Corporations.

Over lunch, Shirley Otero Romero will moderate a discussion about how to better incorporate women and youth into acequia leadership. Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association board member, Junita Martinez, will discuss her experience; Sandra Santa Cruz, of Sembrando Semillas, will discuss how her program engages youth with agriculture and Bernadette Lucero, director of the Rio Culebra Agricultural Cooperative, will talk about the role of creating economic opportunity to retain young farmers.

Next on the Congreso agenda is a presentation from the Valley’s southern neighbors. Paula Garcia and Janice Varela, of the New Mexico Acequia Association, and New Mexico Legal Aid attorney David Benavides will discuss their work with New Mexico acequias, highlighting their experience organizing at a statewide level, current programs and funding successes in addition to lessons in water rights protection.

The day is scheduled to conclude with presentations from water attorney Peter Nichols and Juan Marinez, of Michigan State University Agricultural Extension. Nichols will discuss the work that he has been doing with University of Colorado law students to create a handbook that includes water rights basics, sample bylaws and other important information for acequias. Marinez will moderate a resource roundtable that will give participants the opportunity to network and hear about programs and ask questions of different government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

The final day of the Congreso begins with an acequia tour heading out at 8 a.m. After the tour concludes, Sunday will round out with various sessions discussing the future of Colorado’s acequias and a lunch presentation recognizing winners of the youth essay contest and poster contest. Students will be presented with awards and the first prizewinners will read his or her essay and present his or her poster. Also during this time, Vigil and State Senator Gail Schwartz will be presented Acequia Advocate Awards will be presented.

Registration cost is $20 per person for farmers and ranchers and $100 per person for all others. If cost is a problem, payment options might be available. Visit http://www.sangreacequias.org to register and for more information.

“We would love to have anyone that is interested,” Parmar said. “We don’t want cost to be prohibitive to anyone. It is a packed agenda, and it will all be good.””

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