Honoring historical Valley waters

Diana Romero-Cortez celebrates the past, present and future of water everyday. On Friday morning, she shared her celebration with fellow Coloradans on the first Valley Water 2012 caravan tour of the summer.

A small group of water curious people listened hard through the sounds of water breaking over rocks in La Vega’s water channels to hear Cortez tell the story of the common grazing area, which is the last traditional commons left in America, and the power of The San Luis People’s Ditch, one of San Luis’ most precious veins.

“For nine generations we have been living here,” Cortez said. “We are a living history. We believe in the sustainability that has been handed down by our ancestors. We will never starve. We will never be alone.”
La Vega sits to the southeast of the oldest town in Colorado and is the only Mexican-Era land grant commons in the state. In 1863, villagers living in the Rio Culebra Basin allocated the commons 18 miles south to the New Mexico border. Today, 500 acres of La Vega remains and its fate rests in the hands of local descendants. A commission created in the ‘70s governs the commons, which is still a traditional, uncultivated wetlands used only for grazing cattle and horses for five months out of the year.

“In the past, the big herds would go up to the mountains in the summer months,” Cortez explained. “La Vega was a place to keep animals for easy access, like your horse that you ride up to the mountains to check your herd.”

Running through La Vega is water from Rito Seco Creek and Río Culebra. It meanders through the meadow’s high grass and eventually finds it way to The San Luis People’s Ditch, an original acequia. The gravity-fed irrigation system was built in 1852 and it was eventually awarded the first adjudicated water rights in Colorado nearly a quarter of a century before Colorado became a state. Within the next decade, 14 other acequias were developed in the Culebra Watershed. Today, over 240 families in the Culebra watershed use acequias to irrigate over 24,000 acres of privately owned pastures and croplands.

With a little help over the years from government agencies and the eventual return of younger San Luis generations with knowledge of a world beyond the Sangre de Cristo’s, La Vega and the acequias are still an integral part of the town’s heritage and its future plans.

“We want to keep our water here,” Cortez said. “It is the reality of how self-sustaining we are. This is our gift. We will always survive.”

Reservoirs and canals

In addition to the lessons in the historical water and land systems of San Luis, the tour also included a visit to the Sanchez Reservoir and the Sangre de Cristo Diversion Canal.

Earlier this month, The Sanchez Ditch and Reservoir Company announced a $2 million plan to replace the deteriorating concrete gate tower that allows water to enter the San Luis acequia system. Since its inception 100 years ago, a cable car suspended over the reservoir is the only was to access the tower.

“When this was built, they said it would be cutting edge,” said Sanchez Ditch and Reservoir Company Manager Travis Robinson. “We will have the tower and the gates

replaced, but we will still feed into the original system.”

The tower will be demolished above approximately 8,335 feet elevation and two new gates will be installed on a slab over what is left of the tower. The two gates will replace the nine that are used to control water distribution to Ventero Creek.

When the Sanchez Reservoir was built, it happened to be one of the wettest years on the books, Robinson explained, but it was built too large, and the San Acacio Ditch Company sold too much land, which lead to trouble when drought struck in the ‘50s.

“The drought caused bankruptcy and the farmers bought and incorporated the land in 1956,” Robinson said. “Now the company has 20,000 shares, which are getting smaller and smaller every year. Larger farms are buying the small ones out.”

These shares are going to mostly alfalfa fields, but do run through some potato crops, Robinson said. In the past, most shares were worth six inches of water, but this year they are only worth two because of the current drought. When the reservoir was built, contracts were signed for 18 inches of water, which often required that the reservoir be completely drained.

Some 20 miles north of the Sanchez Reservoir, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Fort Garland, sits another reservoir system that links the mountain streams with modern canals to keep water flowing.

Similar to the San Acacio farmer buyout in the ‘50s, the Fort Garland area farmers also took control of their own destinies. At one point, the area was a tax supported water district before the 1944 creation of The Trinchera Irrigation Company. Today, the company operates the Smith Reservoir, The Mountain Home Reservoir and approximately 26 miles of canals and 45 miles of laterals.

District 35 Water Commissioner Bob Schultz explained the relationships between the water distributed through the various streams, ditches and reservoirs. He brought special attention to the Sangre de Cristo Trinchera Diversion Canal, which allows for management flexibility of upwards of 25,000 acres and self sustaining system that can send extra water back to the source.

“I am in awe of the foresight the people had when they built this system,” Schultz said. “This has lasted for one hundred years. We have all of this technology today, but there was so much basic stuff done at that time that I find amazing. That is stuff we can’t do.”

In January 2012 Colorado’s Governor John W. Hickenlooper declared 2012 The Year of Water. The goals of Colorado Water 2012 are to raise awareness about water as a valuable and limited resource; increase support for management and protection of Colorado’s water and waterways; showcase exemplary models of cooperation and collaboration among Colorado water use; connect Coloradans to existing and new opportunities to learn about water and motivate Coloradans to become proactive participants in Colorado’s water future.

Look for more Valley Water 2012 tours coming later this summer including the Rio Grande Headwaters in Creede and the Platoro Reservoir in Antonito.

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