Students Help Farmers through the Acequia Project

June 24, 2013

by Blake Busse (’15)

My first year of law school was simultaneously the longest and shortest nine months of my life. When I, with more than 25 of my fellow law students, helped farmers in southern Colorado through the Acequia Project, it reminded me why I came to Colorado Law in the first place.

The Acequia Project provides low or no-cost legal assistance and educational materials to acequia farmers. Located in four of Colorado's poorest counties in and around the San Luis Valley, acequias, put simply, are physical irrigation systems (a.k.a. ditches). But more importantly, the term also encompasses a philosophy about water and community that includes the cooperation and the sharing of water in times of scarcity. Many of the small-scale, acequia farmers of southern Colorado can trace their family's roots to a time before Colorado was a territory, let alone a state.

Through the Getches-Wilkinson Center and Colorado Open Lands, the Acequia Project coordinates a group of about 25 law students to draft a legal handbook for the Colorado acequias; assist those acequias that wish to incorporate, amend, or draft bylaws; and assist acequias and individual irrigators to document their water rights.

When I heard that background, I immediately realized that this was the extracurricular for me.  Here was a meaningful opportunity to engage in water-related issues, my primary area of legal interest. Additionally, it provided relevant experience in transactional work. The project was intriguing due to its connection to the unique history of southern Colorado, an area I previously knew very little about.

After several organizational meetings during the spring semester, an April trip was planned to the town of San Luis with two goals in mind. Our first and primary objective was to meet with the irrigators that we would be representing through the project and to gain an initial understanding of the legal issues we would be helping them to address. For nearly all of the students in San Luis that day, this was our first experience sitting across from real clients with real issues. Law school immediately became real. Our second objective was to get our hands dirty by assisting with the spring cleaning of our clients' ditches. Digging red willows out of the muddy ditch bottom with the snow-covered Sangre de Cristo Mountains offset by a bluebird Colorado sky was a great way to spend a morning.

After the meetings and ditch cleaning had concluded, we were invited to the home of Juanita and Jose for lunch. Sitting on their porch, eating menudo and bologna sandwiches, we were treated with incredible hospitality. Professor Sarah Krakoff and Sarah Parmar from Colorado Open Lands observed that not all visitors receive as warm a reception as we experienced. Because our goal was to assist residents of the community (rather than to study them, as often happens due to the region’s unique history and culture) we were met with incredible warmth, openness, and gratitude.

As a result of the trip to San Luis, my legal studies were placed in a completely new perspective. The innumerable hours spent in the classroom and library were a means to an end. The end was the ability to provide high quality legal services to help people resolve their legal problems. Sitting in the living room of another client, Ernest, discussing the challenges he faced for the upcoming irrigation season, introduced a human element to my legal education that had previously been indistinct.

Luckily, the Acequia Project received recent grant awards from the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation and the University of Colorado’s Outreach Committee to support students in the upcoming year.

The most common refrain heard from my fellow students in the valley that day was "this is the best day of law school yet!" and I could not agree more.

 

“Blake is one of the more than two dozen students, mostly first years, who dove into this project with enthusiasm. Not only are they helping their clients, but they are getting top-notch mentoring from Peter Nichols, a Colorado Law alumnus and one of the best water lawyers in the state,” Krakoff said. “In addition to Sarah Parmar from Colorado Open Lands, the Project also benefits tremendously from the pro bono efforts of Allan Beezley, Karl Kumli, and Ryan Golten.”