October 29, 2012
Metropolitan State University of Denver
Castro Professor Devon Peña gives cultural, agricultural tour of San Luis Valley
By Cliff Foster
The San Luis Valley would seem to be an inhospitable place to farm. The elevation is 7,500 feet and higher, it receives an average of only 8 inches or so of rainfall a year, roughly the same as Death Valley, and has a relatively brief growing season, 90 to 120 days.
Yet there is a rich farming and ranching heritage in this slice of south-central Colorado, one fed by mountain snowmelt delivered to crops and animals by a communal system of ditches know as acequias. And it is this system that provided the framework for a keynote address titled, “Sin Agua, No Hay Vida—Lessons of an Arid Sensible Life,” last Wednesday at St. Cajetan’s by Richard T. CastroDistinguished Visiting Professor Devon Peña.
Peña, professor of American ethnic studies, anthropology, and environmental studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, is a lifelong activist in the environmental and resilient agriculture movements. The owner of a 200-acre farm in the valley, he is a leading expert on acequias and is secretary of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association in Colorado.
Slideshow images of Valley farms and the people who work them were the backdrop for Peña’s panoramic sketch of the environmental, agricultural and cultural values that spring from acequias, which sustain the farms, provide enormous benefits to native vegetation and wildlife, and contribute to the civic, economic and historical heritage of communities in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.
Acequias date back thousands of years to present-day India. The technique eventually migrated to Spain and then to Mexico and was introduced in the United States by farmers from colonial Mexico. It is a farmer-managed system of water allocation based on equity and fairness and the principle of shared scarcity in times of drought, when farmers use less water so that all can share in the limited resource. It operates on a one-landowner-one-vote principle and relies on labor supplied by the owners of irrigated land.
In his remarks, Peña referenced his groundbreaking interdisciplinary, community-led study of Latino family farms in the mid-1990s that documented the ecosystem and economic benefits of acequias. It found that acequias promote agricultural diversity, conservation, food production, soil formation, wildlife habitat and more.
“It shows you that farming doesn’t have to be against nature; it can actually imitate nature, and at its best farming systems will produce habitat rather than destroy it,” he said. “And this is one of the most profoundly important contributions of acequia systems in the history of agriculture.”
Still, these systems have faced significant challenges. Among them was an a 1882 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that adopted the prior appropriation doctrine of water rights and in the process essentially erased years of acequia law and recognition of acequias by the territorial legislature, Peña said.
Nevertheless, acequias survived. And in 2009, the Colorado State Legislature passed and then-Gov. Bill Ritter signed a bill that, Peña said, declared acequias part of Colorado water law. Among other things, it allowed for establishment of acequia ditch corporations that may adopt bylaws to restore some of the most significant acequia norms and practices such as management of water as a community resource rather than a commodity.
Despite that victory, there’s need for additional legislation, Peña said, and policies to protect family farms from threats such as genetically modified alfalfa and corn and the water-hungry irrigation techniques of big agribusiness.
As Peña told the audience, acequias are more than irrigation systems. Citing the annual tradition of spring ditch-cleaning by members of the community, he said “it’s one of the reasons I always talk about acequias not just as a technology and a form of self-governance.
“I like to tell people we don’t just grow crops, we grow community. We grow a sense of place.”