Multidisciplinary MSU Denver students and faculty visited the farms of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado on Sept. 21 to research the 400-year-old Acequia system.
The Acequia system is a community governed irrigation system where the water is not “owned” but rather local farmers have usage rights to it.
“The ‘use-rights’ holders are known as ‘parciantes,’” according to a report by Devon Peña, MSU Denver’s 2012 Richard T. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professor. “A customary norm of Acequia governance is the principle of ‘shared scarcity.’ In times of drought every farmer uses less water so that all can share in the resource.”
The research trip kicked off when Peña asked Ramon Del Castillo, Chair of the Chicano Studies department, to head up a team in Colorado to do research on the Acequia system. Peña would then present the data to the Colorado Congreso de Acequias on Oct. 19 in San Luis.
“Information is always important,” Castillo said. “What [Peña] will use it for is to probably make inter-organizational policy decisions and develop strategic plans on what [the farmers] want to do. Let’s say there are [water wars]. He can come in with his information and say to policy makers ‘look, here is what we have,’ just like he did the law.”
The law Castillo is referring to is HB 1233-09, which protects and preserves the Acequia. According to Castillo, Peña’s research was instrumental in passing the law in April ‘09.
The five MSU Denver students who headed up the research team come from different areas of study such as civil engineering, Spanish studies, Chicano studies, and water studies. Last weekend’s trip to the San Luis Valley was the first of three. They will go back on Sept. 28 and Oct. 5. The students will be collecting data on the farms, retrieving information on how many acres of land the Acequia can irrigate, if that number has changed over time and why. They will also find out what crops the farmers are rotating and using, and will ultimately will study the Acequia operation in order to help preserve it.
When the students returned from the first trip, they debriefed on what they learned so the next trip will run more smoothly. Because the research is highly confidential — due to the fight over water — the students could not be contacted for comment.
“The methodology is for the students to learn and have the experience of doing original research,” Castillo said. “The product would be the information that is aggregated and analyzed in a report that [Peña] is then going to give to the Congreso and say ‘Here is what the research is saying. Here is some qualitative analysis on why this is happening.’”
Tom Cech, the director of the One World One Water Center (OWOW) signed on to the Acequia project and was the first faculty member to accompany the students.
“Saturday night the sun was setting and we were out in the field of corn helping harvest it and it was just a beautiful experience,” Cech said. “Many of the farms in the area go back multi-generations. The Acequia owners were so welcoming to us and quite often they used the word ‘love’ when they referred to their land and to the water. We made a lot of friends on the trip.”
Students watched the Aspen leaves turn, heard coyotes in the distance and watched the sunrises and sunsets while eating sopapillas and coffee cake brought to them by the parciantes, Cech said.
The oldest ditch in the area is from 1852, the “San Luis People’s Ditch,” according to Cech. There are many Acequia systems in operation in the U.S including parts of New Mexico and central Colorado; places once occupied by Spain or Mexico.
Over the next two weekends, Dr. Adriana Nieto of the Chicano studies department and research assistant Richard Gould will be accompanying the students on the trip.
“I’m going to define success as students increasing their research skills and competencies in the process. And two, being able to develop a final product that will be of value to the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association,” Castillo said.