Annual Congreso de Acequias meeting held in San Luis


Photos by Diane Drekmann The annual Congreso de Acequias meeting in San Luis featured a variety of speakers. From left to right, Alma Felix-Duran, Kamry Maestas and Eli Ward received awards for the Colorado Open Lands art contest at the Congreso de Acequias in San Luis.

SAN LUIS — Each year, residents of San Luis Valley come together for the annual Congreso de Acequias meeting of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, to learn new and better ways to manage and protect the acequias — a unique irrigation system brought to the San Luis Valley by Spanish settlers.

The first settlers in the Valley hand dug ditches in the 1850s that have been in continual use ever since. The irrigation canals are communally owned and maintained, preserving, and protecting a way of life, culture, and history that binds families and communities together. People in San Luis Valley know, "Water is Life! La Agua es Vida!" San Luis, as the oldest town in Colorado, has the oldest acequia, "The People's Ditch," and the oldest water rights.

Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association is a non-profit dedicated to preserving and protecting the acequias and the rights of the acequia owners. The organization currently protects 73 acequias which serve 300 families. The 11th Congreso de Acequias Meeting was held at Centennial School in San Luis.

Many organizations were on hand to talk about different topics like improving soil and water health, water rights, and landowner rights, and to celebrate the youth and members of the Sangre de Cristo Acequias Association board members.

John Miller, from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, discussed a soil health program called STAR (Saving Tomorrow's Agricultural Resources). Cathy O'Neill, with Natural Resources Conservation Service, gave a demonstration of what healthy soils look like.

Regan Velasquez owns Goose Meadows Ranch and talked about the benefits of a high tensile fence.

"They can be put up one time and they stay up permanently. It is cheaper and better than barbed wire. Fences should be in a straight line," he said.

Velasquez also mentioned the benefits of beavers, "who create more biodiversity." Fences can be created where the beavers can move through without destroying the soil. "When soil is loose, we lose our soil," he said.

The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association works extensively with Colorado Open Lands, an organization that works with landowners to protect their land and acequias by offering conservation easements. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between the landowner and land trust or government agency that puts permanent restrictions in place to ensure the land will not be developed and the water rights will stay with land rights. Currently, eight families are taking advantage of these easements which are also protecting 13 acequias.

Colorado Open Lands held an art contest for students K-6 at Sierra Grande, Centennial, and South Conejos schools. The question asked was, "What would our future look like if we protect our water sources?" The winners of the art contest were honored at the Congreso de Acequias meeting. Some students were there to accept their awards. Kamry Maestas from Centennial won first place for first grade. Alma Felix-Duran also from Centennial won second place for second grade. Eli Ward of Centennial won first place for third grade and Brandon Thomas from Centennial won third place for third grade. Students from Antonito and Sierra Grande also won awards.

The Congreso de Acequias meeting also recognized the founding members of the board for their hard work and dedication — Ernesto Vigil, John Santistevan, Charlie Maestas, Joe Gallegos, Evan A. Valdez, Larry Mondragon, and Richard Martinez. April Vilapando received a volunteer plaque for her contributions.

Armando Valdez, Colorado State Director of USDA Rural Development, explained that his organization helps people buy or improve their homes through grants and loans. There is a $10,000 grant available to assist people 62 years old and older who are low-income in becoming homeowners. Armando Valdez mentioned there will be a meeting on March 22 at the Costilla County Economic Development Center, 401 S. Church Pl., San Luis, from 1 to 6 p.m. to answer questions and provide solutions for home ownership or to learn about resources to fix and improve a current home. A second Rural Development meeting will be the next day, March 23, at the Rio Grande Water Conservancy Building on 8800 S. Independence Way from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The afternoon of the Congreso de Acequias meeting focused on the protection of water rights. Lawyer Gregor MacGregor was available to help landowners with acequia issues. For more information, visit