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Acequia Recognition Law

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in Contemporary Politics, Law, and Social Movements
Author(s):
Gregory A. HicksGregory A. Hicks

Acequia Recognition Law. 

The Colorado Acequia Recognition Law was adopted by the Colorado legislature in April 2009. It recognizes traditional Hispano methods of irrigation and of community water governance as valid under Colorado law. The act is particularly significant for Colorado, which has long been committed to the Anglo-American rule of individual prior appropriation as the foundation of all water rights in the state.

The Colorado acequia communities were established at the very end of the period of Mexican governance of the upper Rio Grande region in the years following the Mexican War (1846–1848). The building of community-governed irrigation systems was a main foundation of early settlement of the region. That early history of water governance is evident to this day in the river valleys of southern Colorado and is most visible in the networks of community irrigation ditches and in the layout of acequia farms and towns there.

With the formation of the Colorado Territory, the traditional Hispano water rules were accommodated first by territorial law and later by Colorado state law. That period of accommodation came to a definite end in 1882 when the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed that the law of appropriation was the sole basis of all water rights in the state. Communal acequia water rights were recast as individualized property rights held by irrigators and not communally by the communities of acequia farmers. Acequias continued as local water governance institutions, but acequia communal rights no longer defined how water was owned or the priorities for its use.

It was the work of community activists and of state lawmakers that led the Colorado legislature to reconsider the value of acequia traditions and practices in governing water. That advocacy led to the April 2009 adoption of the Acequia Recognition Act, approving acequias as an alternative structure for water organization. The main features of the Recognition Act are as follows:

  • recognition of acequias as among the oldest institutions in the United States for local self-governance of natural resources and as a vital part of Colorado’s water history

  • acknowledgment of the value of acequias in their communities as structures of governance and as foundations for community-based conservation of water resources

  • empowering acequias to organize themselves under state law as “acequia ditch corporations” with the authority to adopt bylaws that establish rules of governance along communitarian lines, including the rule of one irrigator–one vote irrespective of size of landholding, the right to demand labor or assessments from all irrigators to maintain the system, the right within the acequia to allocate water on the basis of need and equity rather than temporal priority, and the right of first purchase so that an acequia will not lose water if one of its members proposes to sell outside the acequia.

The Recognition Act does not reestablish the older acequia law of communal ownership, but it does allow individual acequias to choose to govern themselves along lines that emphasize equality of status and a common commitment that water shall be tied to the land. Acequias must choose whether to organize themselves as acequia ditch corporations.

See also Acequia Institute; Land Grants; New Mexico Acequia Association; Southwest, The; and Taos Valley Acequia Association.

Bibliography

Amending Article 42 of Title 7, Colorado Revised Statutes by Adding a New Section: 7-42-101.5. Acequia Mutual Ditch—Definition—Powers. Colo. Sess. Laws 738 (2009).Find this resource:

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      Hicks, Gregory A., and Devon G. Peña. “Community Acequias in Colorado’s Rio Culebra Watershed: A Customary Commons in the Domain of Prior Appropriation.” Colorado Law Review 74, no. 2 (2003): 387–486.Find this resource:

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            Stoller, Marianne L. “Grants of Desperation, Lands of Speculation: Mexican Period Land Grants in Colorado.” In Land, Water, and Culture: New Perspectives on Hispanic Land Grants. Edited by Charles L. Brigs and John R. Van Ness. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.Find this resource:

              Vigil, E. Reengrossed House Bill 09-1233. A Bill for an Act Concerning the Recognition of Acequias, and, in Connection Therewith, Authorizing Acequia Water Districts, Sixty-Seventh General Assembly, State of Colorado, Denver, 2009.Find this resource:

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                  Gregory A. Hicks