Published: March 19, 2024 By
San Luis
San Luis Group Walkabout
Congreso de Acequias
People's Ditch Marker
Acequia Assistance Project Group Photo

Members of the Acequia Assistance Project, in conjunction with the Getches-Wilkinson Center and the Colorado Law School, made their way down to San Luis, CO earlier this month to attend the 12th annual Congreso de Acequias. There, Project members took a walking tour of San Luis, visited the People’s Ditch which holds the oldest water right in Colorado, met with clients, participated in community workshops, and dined at local favorite Mrs. Rios. This visit gave students the opportunity to better understand the San Luis community, the land that their work is influencing, and gain a deeper understanding of the importance of the acequia system within Colorado’s water laws. 

Congreso is a full-day conference that centers local voices, issues, and plans for the future. The event began with bendición de las aguas– the blessing of the water– where water from each acequia in attendance was combined and blessed. At the first workshop of the day, titled “Rebuilding a Robust Local Food System,” Colorado Open Lands and the Acequia Association brought together voices from around the Valley to discuss food sovereignty and how the community can work together to keep locally grown produce in the Valley, rather than export it, to address the lack of local access to healthy food. Representatives joined from the San Luis People’s Market, the San Luis Valley Food Coalition, local farms, and other organizations from around the Valley. In the second workshop of the day, “Rangeland and Grassland Drought Resilience,” Annie Overlin from CSU Extension discussed how farmers and ranchers can maintain their crops and cattle during drought years by creating action plans in advance. To wrap up the morning programming, the Acequia Association presented awards to elementary-aged art contest winners, who created pieces exhibiting their relationship to water growing up in the Valley, and one 13-year-old community member shared the story of how he learned the importance of water during his childhood in San Luis.

Lunch consisted entirely of locally-sourced food and featured a performance from local singer, Lara Manzanares, who performed a series of songs which spoke to the experiences growing up in rural areas and her perspective on the land surrounding her. In the afternoon, Colorado Law’s student attorneys, Masters of the Environment (MENV) students, and Project Director MacGregor presented updates about current student projects to inform the community of legislative updates impacting the San Luis Valley, outcomes from ongoing research projects, and new opportunities to seek support from the project. To wrap up the day’s workshops, there was an in-depth presentation on current funding opportunities for acequias and farmers.

The final event was a discussion and film screening about the Cielo Vista Ranch dispute, which has been ongoing since the early 1980s. Many community members in San Luis have historic land rights to graze livestock, collect timber for firewood, and hunt on the land currently owned by the Cielo Vista Ranch. Texas billionaire William Harrison bought the mountain in 2017 and has continued to build an 8 to 10-foot tall animal fence that interferes with easement owners' rights to the land, exacerbating the decades-long issue. Documentary producer, Juan Salazar, attended Congreso and introduced his film, titled La Tierra, which details the history of advocacy in the San Luis community and discusses the significance of community organizing and resistance. Community members, including activist Shirley Romero-Otero, led a discussion about the dispute following the documentary, which allowed students to gain a more well-rounded understanding of how the issue has been impacting the valley for generations.

Colorado Law student attorneys and MENV students attended Congreso along with Getches-Wilkinson Center’s Acequia Assistance Project Director Gregor MacGregor and supervising attorneys Bill Caile, Megan Christensen, Enrique Romero, Andrew Teegarden, and Aaron Villapondo. The Acequia Assistance Project has provided pro bono legal services to clients in the San Luis Valley since the Project’s founding in 2012, and this year is no different. The project currently has 18 open cases, providing a variety of services to clients in the San Luis Valley including legal and policy research related to the region’s water rights, drafting acequia bylaws and amendments, conducting community title searches, facilitating water right applications, completing Acequia Handbook updates, and providing application assistance to farmers seeking federal Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funding. Throughout the day, Acequia Assistance Project members conducted client intake meetings, worked with farmers one-on-one to discuss upcoming funding opportunities, and collected comments to improve the community’s Acequia Handbook.

The Acequia Assistance Project is grateful for the opportunity to work with the San Luis community, learn alongside its members, and provide pro bono legal support to benefit community members. We cannot wait to return to Congreso in future years.