An acequia is a physical irrigation ditch, but it is also a term referring to a deeply embedded philosophy of community governance of water resources. At their core, acequias operate under the notion that water allocation is a responsibility meant to be shared. Acequia systems, while aligned legally with prior appropriation, diverge from the competition created by the senior/junior system in prior appropriation. Acequias focus on water democracy — sharing in times of scarcity, collective maintenance, focusing on soil health, and maintaining water relationships with neighbors. Testimonies demonstrate that acequias provide resilience in times of drought, emit little to no carbon footprint, yield profitable crop production, and cultivate habitats and other crucial ecosystem services.
Historically, acequia systems have not been elevated to state level water planning in Colorado. They are only mentioned a single time in the 2015 Colorado Water Plan — in a footnote discussing the legacy of the late Costilla County Commissioner Joe Gallegos. The 2009 Acequia Recognition Law provides recognition for acequia bylaws, but there is little to no funding directly from the state. The current Colorado Water Plan update process is an opportunity to address this shortfall and correct the minimal representation for acequias in past written water planning documents. Acequias have recently received more recognition at the state level through the Colorado Water Equity Task Force, but there is more to be done to foster more equitable systems that elevate the benefits of acequia management.
Want to learn more?
Watch Dr. Devon Peña’s presentation in our education session Know Your Water: Equity, Agriculture, and Colorado Water Planning – Session 1: Equity and CO Water
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) acknowledges that agriculture is both the largest user of water in the state and the crucial economic and cultural foundation for many rural communities in Colorado. There are about 66.3 million acres of land in Colorado, and 10.6 million of these acres are irrigated cropland. Statewide, agriculture diverts 34% of the total water that originates in Colorado, and the sector represents 89% of the total water consumed.
In recent years, agriculture in Colorado has faced the challenge of losing large portions of irrigated agricultural land to urban/suburban development to make room and provide water for a rapidly growing population. The CWP predicts that, without a water plan in place, the state could lose 20% of its total irrigated agricultural lands to municipal growth. Agriculture in the state has already declined by 338,000 acres statewide, but the state continues to expect high levels of agricultural productivity to support the population and contribute to economic stability and growth. By 2050, Colorado could lose 500,000 to 700,000 acres of currently irrigated farmland to meet other demands. The South Platte Basin alone could lose up to one-third of its irrigated acreage by 2050. Read below to learn about one solution to agricultural dry up in the state, alternative transfer methods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of local and regional food production. This recognition may push decision makers to invest more time and funds into Colorado’s food system, possibly slowing the decline in irrigated acreage. At this time it is difficult to predict the ripple effects of the pandemic. In contrast, slowed economic growth in the state could have adverse effects on both rural and urban food producers. CWCB must consider all scenarios during the update process, and provide tools to ensure the future of agriculture in Colorado. To tell CWCB about your thoughts on this topic, click here.
Alternative Transfer Methods (ATMs) are one of Colorado’s solutions to curb dramatic decline in farmland acreage while also meeting other water needs. ATMs originally emerged to sustain the agricultural sector and address public externalities typically associated with traditional “buy-and-dry” transactions, to which working lands have often been subjected. Buy-and-dry transfers involve the permanent dry-up of agricultural lands originally associated with a water right and a transfer of the right to municipal or industrial use. Instead, ATMs work to serve the needs of both the original water rights holder and a novel beneficiary. This can be achieved through water sharing agreements and “new” water generation through conservation practices, deficit irrigation, rotational fallowing, crop switching, and other practices. Such agreements are typically temporary and provide for transactions that benefit multiple sectors.
The CWCB facilitates a grant proposal and approval process for ATM projects. The state, however, is still working to provide a comprehensive framework for the alternative water transfers that are needed to achieve goals set by the 2015 Colorado Water Plan. ATMs are complicated, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to funding, assistance, or even statutory definition for ATM. There are also legal and institutional complications and barriers including the Colorado Water Court system.
Demand Management (DM) is the concept of temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in the consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin in order to ensure ongoing Colorado River Compact compliance. Crucially, a DM program is meant to avoid involuntary restriction of Colorado’s current uses for Colorado River water. Essentially, in the event of a drought, water rights owners in the Colorado River Basin may have to volunteer to stop using the water they would normally use. This water would be stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to serve downstream states like Utah, Arizona, and others.
A DM program in Colorado is not a foregone conclusion. However, with the current drought and resulting low reservoir levels in the southwestern United States, a “call on the river” could happen very soon for the Colorado River. For agricultural water users in the Colorado River Basin, this could be a big deal, though the state assures users that no one will ever be mandated to comply.
Colorado is in an active drought. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, non-governmental organizations, farmers, and other water users are working toward potential drought solutions for agriculture including conservation, land use change, water sharing, and more. To view our short summary of the current drought and what this means for agriculture, click here.
The Ute peoples are the oldest continuous inhabitants of the land now called Colorado. They have been intimately tied to the waters of the region for many centuries, long before incursion by European colonizers and settlers. By the end of the 19th century, the three bands of Ute peoples remaining in Colorado had been relegated to its southwest corner, in what are now the Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute reservations. Many Indigenous people live beyond the borders of the reservations as well, all across the state of Colorado. Although the Ute people had been gradually pressured to adopt a settled agricultural lifestyle, they were removed to reservations in some of the least suitable lands for agriculture in the state. Despite these setbacks, both tribes have fostered successful agricultural communities on their reservations; the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise, for instance, has been repeatedly recognized at both state and national levels for its products.
Given the challenges and opportunities posed by the tribes’ unique water rights and the long history of oppression and exclusion of Indigenous peoples by both the federal and state governments, particular considerations of equity and justice must be extended to the Colorado Ute Tribes in regards to water issues. This is particularly important because tribes’ vital cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial uses are often not adequately addressed in Western legal and economic structures. Careful, intentional, and respectful consultation with the tribes一as well as inclusion in statewide deliberative water planning processes一is essential to developing a robust understanding of Indigenous water needs, including cultural significance and intended uses of water.
Urban agriculture was not included in the 2015 Colorado Water Plan and is not commonly found in Western water plans. Urban agriculture is not only a relatively common use for water in Colorado, but it can also provide ecosystem services, community benefits, stormwater protection, water savings, and countless other benefits for many communities across the state. The Water Equity Partnership is currently advocating for urban agriculture’s explicit inclusion within the Colorado Water Plan update process and beyond.
Want to get involved?
On Thursday, July 22nd from 6:30-8pm MT, the National Young Farmers Coalition and Frontline Farming are hosting a second water teach-in on Urban Agriculture and Water. Colorado Department of Ag Commissioner Kate Greenburg, Alex Funk of Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Dr. Amanda Weaver – a farmer and Geography professor – will discuss how urban producers fit into Colorado’s state water plan and resources that can support on-farm water management. Register here.
The Water Equity Task Force is intended to better understand existing equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) challenges related to Colorado water issues. According to this press release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, input from this group, combined with other stakeholder input, will help inform the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), ensuring EDI is strongly incorporated into the Colorado Water Plan update.
The Task Force will examine equity, diversity and inclusivity through a broad lens, including racial and gender equity, socio-economic diversity, inclusive idea-sharing, enhanced outreach to disadvantaged communities, and improved communications – all of which helps inform CWCB processes and stakeholder discussions. The Task Force’s stated goals are to:
Grow networks beyond the existing stakeholder groups in Colorado to better reach a larger sample of the state’s population of 5.7 million people.
Expand grant outreach to provide more access and opportunities for Colorado’s most disadvantaged populations.
Enhance communications by engaging with the public using a broader range of platforms in order to reach more Coloradans.
Facilitate future discussions around the term “equity” and what that truly means to the public.
Support inclusivity by better understanding what people are concerned about and making them feel heard and welcomed.