Protecting the watersheds of San Luis Valley’s Rio Grande River: conservation of the Rio Culebra Ranch and acequia

The Rio Grande originates in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, in the Rocky Mountain Range. It is the fourth largest river in the US, serving as a partial border between the US and Mexico and stretching 1,885 miles through Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. The first community the Rio Grande touches is that of the San Luis Valley where approximately 7,500 miles of the river contributes to the Rio Grande Basin as one of the dominant watersheds. The dry valley depends upon irrigation of major crops consisting of potatoes, barley, vegetables and alfalfa to a community that is, economically, highly dependent upon agriculture and raising livestock.

The intense irrigation and pumping of aquifers in this region by commercial farming companies has created a trickle-down affect on the rest of the communities this large river affects. Many farms in the San Luis Valley depend upon the snowfall in the mountains to replenish the Rio Grande and the surrounding groundwater. However, intense agricultural irrigation and the effects of an invasive plant species, the salt cedar (which absorbs large amounts of water, and depositing large quantities of salt) affects the Rio Grande Gorge and the White Rock Canyon of New Mexico, as well as the fragile bosque ecosystem in the floodplain of the Rio Grande Rift.

Clearly, new thinking around water is of critical import in this region. But here there is also an older, proven model of irrigation that works for both resource management and community collaboration: an acequia. A physical irrigation system of gravity chutes  – often an open ditch with dirt banks – in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado the term also describes a philosophy about water and community.  The acequia philosophy sees water as essentially communal; a resource that must be shared.

In the United States, the oldest acequias were established more than 400 years ago; and many continue to provide a primary source of water for farming and ranching ventures in areas in the Upper Rio Grande watershed.

The Trinchera Blanca Foundation, the Colorado affiliate of Louis Bacon’s Moore Charitable Foundation, has partnered with Colorado Open Lands (COL) to support its ongoing involvement with the acequia community to increase awareness of conservation options, and specifically to directly support the permanent protection of an iconic acequia-irrigated ranch.

Funding from The Trinchera Blanca Foundation will enable the permanent conservation of the Rio Culebra Ranch, located just outside of the town of San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town. The ranch protects critical viewsheds from the town and from the famous Stations of the Cross.  The designated Centennial ranch has been in the same family for over 150 years and has a rich multi-generational tradition of stewardship.

The ranch is irrigated by the San Pedro ditch, the second most senior acequia in the watershed, and one of the oldest water rights in the state of Colorado.  Consequently, conservation of this historic working ranch will keep critical senior water rights in agriculture.

The San Luis Valley’s unique acequia heritage has given rise to multiple federal designations, including the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area. However, Colorado Open Lands and The Trinchera Blanca Foundation recognize the critical role private lands play in sustaining the Valley’s ecology and culture. Colorado Open Lands appreciates the Foundation’s partnership in providing incentives to families who wish to see their own farms and acequia communities continue to flourish.

We commend COL’s unique approach to conservation across the state and we are proud to support their efforts to protect acequia lands and communities in the San Luis Valley. Readers can learn more here.