Published: Dec. 26, 2022

Earlier this month, the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources recognized the Acequia Assistance Project with the 2022 Distinguished Achievement Award in Environmental Law and Policy during an online awards presentation.

The award recognizes individuals or organizations who have distinguished themselves in environmental law and policy, contributing significant leadership in improving the substance, process or understanding of environmental protection and sustainable development.

 Student Deputy Director Grace Jimenez.

(Pictured: Director Gregor MacGregor with Student Deputy Directors Ellen Beckert, Cameron Abatti, Mary Slosson, Jackson Dunivan, and Oliver Skelly. Not Pictured: Student Deputy Director Grace Jimenez.)

“It is an incredible honor to accept the award on behalf of the hundreds of students, dozens of supervising attorneys, and many community partners who have advanced environmental justice for Colorado’s acequias over the past decade,” remarked Gregor MacGregor, faculty fellow at the University of Colorado Law School and director of the Acequia Assistance Project. “My special thanks to Professor Sarah Krakoff, Peter Nichols ’01, and Sarah Parmar for launching the Project. A further thank-you to alumnus Don Brown ’89 and the University’s Outreach Office, whose generous funding allows us to support Colorado’s acequias and the professional growth of our students. And finally, my sincerest gratitude goes out to the acequia members who continue to invite us to work and learn in their beautiful community. The Deputy Directors and I are honored to continue the Project’s work on behalf of our community partners and students. Thank you.”

The Acequia Assistance Project is an environmental justice program at the University of Colorado Law School that provides pro bono legal services to southern Colorado's Hispanic agricultural community. For the last ten years, law students, faculty, and pro bono attorneys have helped these irrigation ditches, acequias, to realize their water rights after the Acequia Recognition Act remedied 120 years of exclusion from Colorado's water law regime. 

Acequia Project students working in the outdoors

Acequia is an Arabic word that means “water bearer.” An acequia is a physical irrigation system but the term “acequia” in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado also describes a philosophy about water and community– that water is so essential to life that it is a communal resource, one which must be shared. Acequias are found along the southernmost part of Colorado – including four of the state’s poorest counties: Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano, and Las Animas. While water is wealth throughout the arid West, to the small-scale farmer in these traditional communities the acequia culture represents even more: Acequias are how you support your family and how you participate in your community.

Founded as a passion project by Professor Sarah Krakoff, Colorado Law alumnus water attorney Peter Nichols ‘01, and Colorado Open Lands' Sarah Parmar, the Project provides Hispanic farmers with a full suite of legal services related to their water rights, including: representation in Colorado's Water Courts; researching legal issues pertinent to the community as a whole; title research; bylaws drafting and amending; mediation; incorporation; water rights historic use collection; and drafting water rights purchase and sale agreements. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, the Project included 42 students, 5 pro bono attorneys, and 15 cases. In 2019, the last full year pre-COVID, the Project provided nearly $300,000 of legal services with an operating budget of only $8,000 from the University's Outreach funding. Funding covers the costs of student travel, filing fees, and other incidental costs. All attorney and student participation is entirely voluntary.

“I could not be more proud to see the Acequia Project's many years of dedicated efforts recognized in such a profound way,” commented dean of the law school Lolita Buckner Inniss. “The students, alumni, faculty, and community partners’ dedication to promoting these communities' access to the courts and effective management of resources is inspiring. Its role in instilling a commitment to environmental justice in hundreds of Colorado’s best and brightest future attorneys is truly invaluable.”

Interested in supporting the Acequia Project? Head to the CU Foundation’s Giving Site to make your contribution to the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment.