VALLEY — The San Luis Valley is heading into what looks like a dry summer, where water is of the utmost importance to the agricultural communities of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. With this awareness in mind, SdCNHA is accepting grant applications that could conserve the historical and traditional water practices in the San Luis Valley. One example is the acequia.
Acequias are a historic Spanish agricultural irrigation system of unlined water ditches that irrigate farmers’ fields with water flows that are directed by farmers continuously shifting tarps and dirt along their ditch to move water into fields and then downstream to their neighbors. The unlined ditches also refill shallow aquifers. This use of water links the farmers and ranchers to their 16th century heritage from Spain for up to nine generations on some farms. This water system is only found in four counties in Colorado (Conejos, Costilla, Huerfano and Las Animas) as well as across New Mexico. Because acequias follow the traditional practice of communal sharing that has been passed from generation to generation orally they have few legal protections. Many acequia properties have never officially incorporated and therefore area particularly vulnerable to the water being claimed and moved off of their traditional landscape. One way the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area helps to protect these important waterways in Southern Colorado is to put a property into a conservation easement.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government entity, which contains permanent restrictions on the use or development of land in order to protect certain values of that particular property. The conservation easement is recorded in the county records and binds all current and future owners of the land. If you think of private property rights as a bundle of sticks, conservation easements give you a way to fulfill your intentions to protect your land by donating one of the sticks, like giving up the right to subdivide and the right to commercially develop. Then the landowner, receives cash and some tax benefits recognizing the donation. Land Trusts like Colorado Open Lands (COL) or the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) “hold” the conservation easement, but does not own the property or get involved in day-to-day management.
The majority of conservation easements that land trusts hold protect working farms and ranches, wildlife habitat, and scenic views from public roads or nearby public land. A conservation easement does not allow the public to access your land (unless you want to allow access). A conservation easement does not prevent you from mortgaging, leasing, selling, or passing on your land, subject to the restrictions of the conservation easement.
A land trust is a private, non-profit organization with a mission to help landowners conserve properties with outstanding natural and agricultural values. Land trusts typically do this by holding conservation easements and ensuring that the terms of the easements are being followed. The land trust works with landowners to create the conservation easement document and agrees to care for, or “steward,” the conservation easement.
Nancy Butler executive director for Rio Grande Headwater Trust states, “We are grateful for conservation work as it contributes to the future of our land, water and communities. Conservation of culture is one more important step toward long-term sustainability and stability for the people of the region.”
The history of the Native Americans, along with early Spanish and later Mexican settlers has endowed this landscape with a rich cultural heritage and a strong agricultural identity. The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area recognizes this area as the confluence of American Indian, Latino and Anglo cultures. The acequia irrigation system is the lifeblood of these agricultural communities and supports a rich riparian and wetland system. This area was recognized as a national priority for conservation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“In acequia culture, water is intended to be linked to the land, not treated as a commodity. We understand that conservation easements will permanently link the land to the water,” states Delmer Vialpando, president of the Board of Directors for the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association.
Colorado Open Lands has taken a unique approach to protecting the historic land and water rights in this community by employing both traditional and nontraditional conservation tools. Colorado Open Lands has protected 109,185 acres in this landscape, but also has a partnership with the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association to organize the Colorado Congreso de Acequia, which has been funded by the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, and facilitates a water rights legal assistance program with the University of Colorado Law School.
One legacy of the Sangre de Cristo land grant is that 99 percent of Costilla County is in private ownership; a situation which presents a high level of conservation opportunity and threat. Protection of these lands through a conservation easement offers the opportunity to preserve the acequia system, a system which pre-dates statehood in Colorado, but is now under increasing threat of water transfer and conversion. Acequia water is the lifeblood that feeds Southern Colorado’s farms and ranches, replenishes its aquifers, and supports biodiversity.
The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area has helped to fund conservation easements through organizations like COL and RiGHT who have applied for Heritage Grants. The 2019 grant cycle is now open and the deadline for submissions is June 1, 2018. To learn more about the SdCNHA’s grant guidelines and all the other projects they have helped fund within the heritage area please visit www.sdcnha.org, or send an email to [email protected] or call 719-580-4070.