By Published: March 4, 2024

Illustration of Colorado AcequiaWater is vital for life in the West. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, it’s so essential that, for generations, some communities — called acequias — have treated it as a communal resource that’s meant to be shared.

For the past decade, Colorado Law students have supported the legal needs of these communities through the Acequia Assistance Project. The initiative is a collaboration between CU Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment with Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and several law firms in the state.

Through the project, law students work hand-in-hand with lawyers and professors to provide an estimated $300,000 worth of free legal services to the roughly 130 acequia communities in Colorado. 

Not only does this pro bono work help keep a historic water distribution philosophy alive, but it gives students a chance to put theory into practice — and experience how natural resources law can affect real people.

“Water in the West is at a critical point right now, where climate scientists are predicting increased aridication in Colorado, which will likely result in less water,” said Mary Slosson (Law’24), one of the project’s student deputy directors. “It’s one thing to study these problems from a legal standpoint in the classroom, but it’s entirely another thing to talk about climate change with a small family farmer while walking their land.”

Acequia means “water bearer” in Arabic. The practice — which centers on a network of irrigation channels — originated in Northern Africa, then spread to Europe during the Middle Ages. From there, the Spanish brought the concept to the New World, where it took hold in Mexico and what is present-day New Mexico and Colorado.

But an acequia represents much more than just the physical infrastructure: It’s a way of life. In acequia communities, water is divvied up as equitably as possible — and landowners pitch in to help maintain the ditches.

This philosophy stands in stark contrast to the way water is distributed elsewhere in Colorado. The state’s water laws are based on “prior appropriation,” which means that whoever has the oldest water rights gets first dibs on water, according to Gregor MacGregor (IntlAf’12; Law’19), who participated in the project as a law student and now serves as its director. In times of scarcity, this approach — also known as “first in time, first in right”— means there may not be enough water for those with the youngest water rights, he added.

“In an acequia system, there aren’t shares — it’s one landowner, one vote,” said MacGregor. “The way they allocate water is more personal and values-driven. People on the acequia system are tied to the water and the land.”

For more than a century, Colorado’s legal framework did not recognize acequias. But in 2009, the state legislature passed a law that allowed acequias to incorporate while continuing to operate in their traditional way. To help acequias take advantage of this new recognition, Peter Nichols (MPubAd’82; Law’01) launched the project with Colorado Law professor Sarah Krakoff in 2012. 

“The fact that we have this population that was more or less ignored for 150 years is a huge environmental justice issue,” said MacGregor. “This is a great way to use our very particular set of skills to right the wrongs of the past in a very meaningful way that empowers these communities to chart their own future.”

Law students help acequia communities by drafting bylaws and governance documents, representing them in water court and negotiating the sale of water rights. They also conduct extensive research to help acequias incorporate, as they did with the historic Montez Ditch in San Luis, Colorado.

“The Acequia Project has become part of our community,” said Charlie Jaquez, a former Montez Ditch commissioner whose ancestors were some of the original settlers of San Luis in 1851. “They have been very, very helpful — and very generous. Especially in areas like Conejos and Costilla counties, these communities just do not have a whole lot of money. The ditch would’ve just kept on going the way we did before, decade after decade, but now it’s been placed on solid legal footing.”

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Illustration by Sally Deng