Small farms battle speculators over centuries-old water rights in drought-stricken Colorado

A small farming community is racing to secure rights that will protect the centuries-old irrigation system they need to survive.

Farmer Devon Peña poses in his field with a devotional painting of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers.

On a sage-infused summer morning in the San Luis Valley, Robert Quintana steps from his worn silver pickup truck to check the acequia. Quintana relies on the historic ditch to irrigate his alfalfa fields—but it’s empty, only a trickle of water smudging the dirt along its cracked concrete base.

He’s certain someone has stolen his water, which the fourth-generation rancher needs to soak the 1,700 acres of hay and alfalfa he sells and feeds to 200 cattle. “This is a daily thing … when we are in a drought,” Quintana says. “Most people on these ditches are friends and family, but there’s no love when it comes to water.”

The 169-year-old San Luis Peoples’ Ditch holds the oldest water right in Colorado. Just as his ancestors from Spain did, Quintana taps it and several other ribbons of water that snake through North America’s largest alpine valley in shallow acequias (pronounced ah-seh-key-uh).

The centuries-old irrigation system sustains a unique and ancient culture that today faces unprecedented threats. Rising temperatures, declining snowpack, and record drought attributed to climate change dried up some acequias, forcing families to fallow fields and sell cattle. Extremes in weather in this Massachusetts-sized area are bringing farmers to their knees like nearly no place else in the United States. 

And even as the water supply shrinks, development is accelerating: A venture backed by former Governor Bill Owens seeks to export water from the valley to the expanding Denver suburbs more than 180 miles to the northeast.

In the face of these threats, Quintana and some other multigenerational landowners think they may have found a way to protect their land, water, and heritage. They’re forging legal agreements with land trusts that permanently restrict most development on their properties and ensure their water rights can never be separated from the land. The arrangements preserve the tradition of irrigating with communally owned and operated acequias. They also provide urgent lessons for rural areas throughout the West, where water is at a premium.

“We look at natural resources as survival; speculators look at it as profit,” Arnold Valdez declares, as his blue heeler dog pants in the shade of sunflowers. Valdez relies on acequias to water about 15 acres of bolita beans and other heritage crops. “We are dying,” he says. “This culture is on the edge of gentrification and the loss of its land and water.”

How acequias help

Ancestors of farmers like Quintana and Valdez emigrated to the San Luis Valley from Mexico in the mid-19th century. To water crops in a desert a mile and a half above sea level, they hand dug the acequias, Arabic for “water bearer.” North Africans originated the ancient irrigation system to funnel water out of rivers into desert valleys for irrigation. Moors brought the tradition to Spain and Spaniards brought it to Mexico.

Today, there are about 76 such waterways—cited by Congress in 2009 when it designated the region a national heritage area—that are fed by snowmelt from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The water flows down Culebra Creek into the fertile cottonwood-speckled valley outside San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town.

In 2002 the San Luis Valley marked its worst drought on record. Following that came three other dry spells so intense they were declared federal disasters.

The town of Center, on the valley’s windswept plain, receives the least amount of precipitation in the state—just seven inches per year. The Rio Grande, the nation’s fourth longest river, originates in the region; depleted by heat, it’s expected to flow at 69 percent of average for the year. Climate change could continue to curtail stream flows here as much as 30 percent in coming years, according to a state water plan.

As surface streams run low, farmers who have groundwater wells can use them to operate pivot sprinklers. But those systems suck too much water out of the region’s aquifers, forcing thousands of acres of agricultural land to be fallowed.

“This basin is over-appropriated—there are way more water rights, both surface and groundwater, than there is water available,” says Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Such a water crunch in a desert region that relies on agriculture for its livelihood is forcing farmers to make wrenching decisions. From the air, rows of crop circles are evergreen on one side and beige on the other—the result of farmers tilling half their acreage. Much is at stake in these decisions, as agriculture provides one in three jobs and pumps $370 million a year into the local economy.

A dwindling resource

In this area of extremes, perhaps no community is as besieged as the 300 families who rely on the acequias for water. Most farmers who use them do not have wells for when they run dry.

Quintana recently signed a legal agreement with Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit that works to preserve land through public-private partnerships. Six others entered into similar deals, protecting 1,475 acres and water rights on a dozen acequias in all. Farmers who sign such conservation easements receive some payment and are eligible for tax benefits in exchange for giving up most development rights to their land and water. Ultimately, the organization hopes to conserve about 6,000 acres, together with water rights, on about one-third of the area’s acequias—all they can fund at this point.  

The deals ensure that no one can steal Quintana’s water. And as it turned out, no one had, at least that time.

In a driving thunderstorm the night before, sixth-generation farmer Steven Romero, who owns property upstream from Quintana, rushed to shut off the iron head gate that allows water from Culebra Creek to flow into the San Luis Peoples’ Ditch.

“You never know … a flood could come down five hours later and wash out the ditch,” says Romero, who didn’t text Quintana until the next day that he “turned the ditch back on,” reflecting the communal culture of the acequias.

Acequias that still exist in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado were part of land grants issued by Mexico before the United States took over the Southwest.

In Colorado, mayordomos, or ditch managers, like Romero and Quintana work to distribute water equitably, depending on how much precipitation Mother Nature provides and how water rights are adjudicated by the state. The managers’ role is almost that of traffic cop, making sure farmers who irrigate strips of land perpendicular to acequias use only the amount allotted to them.

This collective way of managing water is fundamentally at odds with western water law, which allows whoever claimed rights to the resource first to receive their share before the next rights owner in line, and then the next, and so on.

Years-long drought and a divorce proceeding in the mid-2000s—in which a judge ordered the water rights to go to the wife and the land to the husband—forced a reckoning between the two water management philosophies. The ruling underscored the fact that water in the West is a commodity that can be bought or sold separately from property.

“That was a kind of wake-up call,” says Sarah Parmar, director of conservation for the Colorado Open Lands nonprofit. “The community realized they have a deep value system that the land and the water naturally should be together, but it wasn’t actually that way,” she adds. “They’re in a collective fight to preserve a way of life.”

The epiphany led Parmar, water attorneys, and University of Colorado Boulder law students to work with San Luis Valley farmers to establish legal precedents to protect the acequia system. These included bylaws that codify centuries-old oral traditions the community relies on to operate the ditches—traditions such as allotting one vote per family on how water should be allocated and convening an annual spring ditch cleaning at which landowners fish debris out of the waterways.

The legal assistance project also helped farmers obtain water rights from the state. After cementing acequias’ water practices into law, Colorado Open Lands raised $7.8 million for conservation easements to ensure the land and water would never be separated. The nine-year program is so successful the land trust is juggling a lengthy waiting list of applications.

“Commercial threats to water in the valley have really ignited a fire under groups like ours to get as much of this land and water conserved as possible,” says Tony Caligiuri, president of Colorado Open Lands.

Yet more demands on water

Speculators are constantly eyeing the region’s water. The company Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposes to drill wells into a San Luis Valley aquifer and pump the dwindling resource into a pipeline bound for the Denver suburbs. The firm plans to pay $68 million for water rights sold voluntarily by farmers.

A coalition of water agencies that oppose the proposal say they aren’t aware of farmers willing to sell. But RWR says it has received plenty of interest: “At this point, based on water rights offered to us, we would be oversubscribed,” says Monica McCafferty, RWR’s communications director.

The RWR proposal isn’t the only worry for acequia owners. Homes are being built in the hills surrounding the San Luis Valley, raising questions about how much water the new development will require.            

“We’re the highest subdivided county in Colorado—with something like 47,000 parcels,” says Thomas Aragon, Costilla County assessor and a sixth-generation rancher who uses acequias higher up in the Culebra watershed. In 2020, his office received an inch of deed paperwork every week; this year it’s grown to several inches every few days.

Aragon also signed a conservation easement this summer, protecting 248 acres he inherited from his father and water that runs through it in Culebra Creek. A drought cut his hay harvest last year to only 16 percent of what he typically grows, and he had to sell 20 cows. His property is surrounded by lots ranging in size from five acres to 80 acres, most of them not yet developed.

Anxiety about development is heightened by the fact that hydrologists don’t know how additional pumping out of the aquifer will impact streams and acequias. The Colorado Division of Water Resources is conducting a study to answer this question, says Craig Cotten, a division engineer. What is clear, he adds, is that keeping water in the streams is vital for farmers who rely on acequias.

“Acequias use all the water available in Culebra Creek each year—every single drop,” Cotten says. “When the stream is out, they don’t have a backup plan.”

Water shortages can easily lead to income shortfalls. As severe drought reduced surface water and the ability to raise crops, many farmers took second jobs. Quintana is a high school math teacher, and he enjoys it. But to him, Valdez, Aragon, and others, the tradition of irrigation is almost spiritual.

As the summer sun moves higher in the sky, Quintana’s knee-high rubber boots squelch along a hay field. He stoops to gather an armful of long, flexible aluminum siphons with rubber suction cups wired to the ends. They wiggle like noodles in his arms as he lifts one over his head and plunges it into an acequia. The water flows down the tube and floods the field, snaking through a row of green stalks. The liquid will seep back into the earth, replenishing the aquifer.

“From March until November I spend half my day, every day, irrigating,” Quintana says. “All this land I have is nothing without water.”   

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded National Geographic Explorer Elliot Ross’s work.  Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.

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