Learning to be lawyers one ditch at a time

Farmers show CU Boulder law student Gunnar Paulsen where the San Antonio River flows into the El Codo Ditch.

Farmers show CU Boulder law student Gunnar Paulsen where the San Antonio River flows into the El Codo Ditch.

May 24, 2016 • By Sue Postema Scheeres

For Professor Sarah Krakoff and students from the University of Colorado Boulder, spring marks a transition from the halls of the Wolf Law Building to the fields of the San Luis Valley.

Since 2012, Krakoff and her law students have regularly trekked to one of the largest high altitude deserts in the world, where they clear debris from irrigation ditches or acequias and provide free legal assistance to farmers whose water rights are in question.

“We work with local farmers or irrigators to draft bylaws for their acequias to help them take advantage of Colorado laws and also represent these farmers whose water rights are at risk,” said Krakoff, a CU Boulder law professor who specializes in American Indian and natural resources law. “Our goal is to help protect their traditional ways of operating.”

Like many parts of the Southwest, water is a scarce resource in the valley. As the snow from the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan mountains begins to melt, runoff is caught in acequias, which are gravity-fed irrigation ditches. Many small farmers throughout the valley in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico rely on water from the acequias for their crops.

Acequia is an Arabic word that means “water bearer,” but more broadly it refers to the community’s rules and philosophy about sharing limited water resources in the area. Junita and José Martinez, who own 11 acres of land near the San Francisco irrigation ditch in Costilla County, said their land has been farmed this way for generations.

“At the beginning of the watering season, we clean the ditches, then determine as a community who gets to irrigate when and we establish patterns of irrigation,” said Junita Martinez. “If there is a drought we share. We share water in good times and in bad times.”

These longstanding practices were recognized by Colorado state law in 2009 and 2013 in statutes authorizing the acequias’ ability to incorporate and establish bylaws for equitably distributing water. Acequia farmers seeking to understand these laws turned for advice to Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit already working in the community on land use issues. The organization and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association (an umbrella group for acequias) recruited water attorneys, Krakoff and law students to provide legal guidance to the acequia farmers. 

“When I began working with the acequia community in Colorado, I realized that there was a real need for legal assistance, but no way for the community to access it. The knowledge, capacity and dedication that Professor Krakoff has brought over the years has raised the level of understanding of irrigators about their rights to ensure that traditional practices can continue,” said Sarah Parmar, director of conservation for Colorado Open Lands. “In my mind, improving the sustainability of the acequias is a win for both the community and the dynamic agricultural and ecological system it supports.”

The partnership – called the Acequia Assistance Project – also has produced a handbook that outlines Colorado water law and how acequias are protected under the law, which is available in English and Spanish. The project is funded, in part, by the Office for Outreach and Engagement.

Junita Martinez said their acequia has since incorporated and drafted bylaws, thanks to help from Krakoff, local water attorneys and students.

“They didn’t come in and tell us what to do. They listened and explained how they could help with our bylaws. The students learned how to talk to the farmers and showed us a lot of respect,” Martinez said.

More than 60 students have worked with nearly 200 farmers since 2012, drawn by a common interest in environmental and water law and the desire to impact what they see as an issue of environmental justice. Students study the law and the history of the area before meeting with the farmers.

“I got involved because I believe there are broader lessons to be learned by how acequias govern themselves that are applicable to Colorado’s broader water community,” said Gunnar Paulsen, a second year law student who served as an AmeriCorps volunteer in farming and ranching communities in Central Colorado before attending law school.

“The idea of a shared resource that is respected as a natural system is sometimes lost in the bigger picture of water, an ever scarcer and more fraught resource in Colorado, where the population is set to double by 2050,” said Paulsen.

Paulsen and other students toured ditches in Conejos and Costilla counties this spring, where they cleared debris and saw up close how a ditch operates. They also met with farmers to discuss the acequia’s management and how those practices could be reflected in bylaws, and will continue to provide legal advice during the summer and fall.

Krakoff said the students learn skills that can’t be taught in the classroom. “I get a huge amount of satisfaction seeing students interact with farmers and learn how to listen and build trust in the community,” Krakoff said. “It is thrilling to connect to that part of the state and, as a public university, to be able to help.”