COLORADO SPRINGS, CO – Water is the lifeblood of San Luis Valley communities–culturally, economically, and ecologically. With water rights in the Valley watershed at extreme risk of transfer off Valley properties, a supportive alternative for landowners is critical. This year, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and Colorado Open Lands will be awarded the Innovation in Conservation Award at the ninth annual Southern Colorado Conservation Awards (SCCA) for their response to this critical need.
In 2012, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and Colorado Open Lands hosted the first Colorado Congreso de Acequias to identify community needs and concerns about water rights in the Valley. They have since partnered to provide multiple community resources including hosting landowner awareness forums, creating a legal assistance program to strengthen acequia* water rights, and facilitating the placement of conservation easements on Valley properties to ensure that water rights remain in the community.
Despite being in use for more than a century, the rights to some acequias were never formalized in water court. The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and Colorado Open Lands addressed the shortage of legally protected water rights by convening a partnership between experienced water attorneys and students from the University of Colorado law school to document traditional acequia practices in a legally defensible format and to assist Valley landowners in acquiring water rights. The partners also drafted a bilingual reference guide on Colorado Water Law and acequia-specific issues, so communities can problem-solve and maintain independence. Colorado Open Lands has worked with landowners to place conservation easements on acequia-irrigated lands and was recently awarded a Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant by the Natural Resource Conservation Service to protect an entire corridor of private lands along the Rio Culebra. The Colorado Congreso, now in its sixth year, continues to be an event which brings the community together to share concerns and visions.
This work is just the beginning of the partnership between Colorado Open Lands and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association. This innovative and community-oriented approach to conservation and problem-solving are inspiring and fit the mandate of the Innovation in Conservation award – to honor an individual, group, project, or program that has advanced the cause of conservation by developing new conservation models, creating new conservation funding mechanisms, or implementing unique partnerships that protect Colorado’s natural heritage.
*An acequia is a community-managed irrigation system currently found in Southern Colorado and New Mexico. An acequia differs from a mutual ditch company in two key ways: 1. Instead of votes based on the number of shares an irrigator holds, acequia voting is based on the rule of one landowner, one vote. 2. Acequias are managed on the principle of shared scarcity rather than following strict seniority.
About the Southern Colorado Conservation Award
SCCA is the premier awards event for conservation in southern Colorado. Since the first award ceremony was held in 2009, this event has brought attention to the hard work, the discipline, the sacrifice, and the impact of conservation work by recognizing the efforts of individuals and organizations who prioritize the identity, economy, and quality of life we expect in Colorado. Over the course of nine years, community and state-level leaders, non-profits, and national organizations have attended to honor the people who press Colorado forward by working to maintain our landscape, our biodiversity, and our farming and ranching communities. Those recognized ensure every generation can enjoy the Colorado we know and love.
As with years past, each award winner will be featured in a brief film at the event on Wednesday, October 3, at The Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs. Cocktails are at 5 p.m., followed by a farm-to-table dinner and program at 6 p.m. Tickets are $135 with an early-bird ticket option of $100 until June 30. Organizations can also sponsor a 10-person table. Find out more or get your tickets here.