Description of Project Goals:

The Acequia Conservation Initiative RCPP will bring acequia landowners and a variety of resource partners together to place conservation easements on acequia properties to protect and secure senior water rights, prime soils, native habitat and the areas agricultural heritage. Concurrently, the project will also employ a suite of conservation practices through the EQIP program targeting acequia farmers specifically. The goal is to conserve an additional 2900 acres and deploy over $500,000 in additional EQIP projects and technical assistance.

Description of Expected Environmental, Economic, and Social Outcomes

The acequia communities were identified as critical part of the Sangre de Cristo priority landscape by the Colorado Conservation Partnership, which sought to identify those places that give Colorado its unique natural heritage and character. This region is recognized for its unique cultural history, high ratio of private to public lands, tremendous opportunities for landscape-scale conservation, and outstanding scenic, agricultural, and wildlife resources. The Hispano land grant communities are a critical piece of Colorado’s land settlement and water rights history. !cequias are only found in the southern portion of the San Luis Valley within Colorado.

This project will protect historic agricultural lands, their water resources and prime soils, by placing conservation easements on an additional 2900 acres of land in the Culebra Basin. Additionally, these easements will also maintain the viability of the wet meadow complex’s that exist along the ulebra and the wildlife corridors and habitat that run with them. Conservation of these properties, along with the implementation of EQIP conservation projects will provide financial and technical assistance to the areas agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation keeping these agricultural lands economically viable and resilient.

Acequia properties are a Colorado treasure -the oldest agricultural settlements, fed by the state’s first adjudicated water rights. These properties have been owned by the families for over 150 years and their importance cannot be overstated. They are a communal system of irrigation canals and ditches, that serve as the agricultural, social, and ecological foundation of the community. These acequias still function in their original form making them a nationally unique treasure and a key part of olorado’s living history. This project and its programs ensure that the social fabric of these acequia communities remain relevant.


The Rio Culebra, tributary to the Rio Grande River, begins high in the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that form the eastern boundary of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Hispano settlers established several small villages along the Rio ulebra in the San Luis Valley in the early 1800’s as part of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. It is from this initial settlement that the surrounding acequia communities were born. Settlers received narrow parcels of land, called varas, which were situated perpendicular to the waterway. This configuration maximized the number of people that could access water for irrigation. The varas were located purposefully from the foothills of La Sierra to the valley floor and provided rich soil for growing crops. This gravity-flow system of community shared ditches, or “acequias” fed the agriculturally rich basin communities, but left the natural riparian area intact and actually helped expand it, as seepage from the unlined acequias created willow and cottonwood stands.

The early settlement and agricultural development of this area resulted in the ability of these families to gain right to the first water rights in the state. The Hispano farming families who still irrigate from acequias are direct descendants of the settlers of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. It is the convergence of historical, cultural, agricultural, and ecological values in this system that has put this area on the map and given rise to federal recognition. In 2009, it was congressionally designated as part of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, in large part because the acequias that only currently function in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. In 2012, the area became part of the Sangre de Cristo National Conservation Area, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There are significant challenges faced by this community that threaten the Hispano land ownership and stewardship of the acequias within the Rio Culebra watershed. These challenges include a prolonged drought of fifteen of plus years, development pressure from newcomers looking to own a property in an undeveloped rural area that offers so many resource amenities and recently, a renewed interest in buying and moving water from the San Luis Valley to olorado’s growing front range. These landowners have been historically underserved, and continually face financial and educational hardships due to the areas rural location and lack of employment options.

This area was originally chosen because it currently lies at a crossroad of nationally recognized cultural significance, landowner interest in conservation, and significant threat to this underserved population. This area is of both state and national conservation significance and is supported by Hispano farmers who have a united vision for improved watershed health and protection of their water rights to ensure continued viability of their productive and culturally unique agricultural community.

The second phase of the Acequia Conservation Initiative will continue where phase one left off. The interest by local landowners spiked, once their applications began to rank high enough for funding. The Acequia Phase l RCPP provided critical sustainability to these Hispano owned family farms and ranches by connecting these landowners to resources to enable management for improved agricultural and watershed health, at the same time permanently linking the land and water through conservation easements. The Phase ll project promotes a variety of NRCS resource needs that include long-term land protection, soil quality health and productivity, water quality and quantity, terrestrial and aquatic habitat, erosion and long term resilience in a way is aligned with and guided by the heritage and traditions that shape this unique community. The project will focus on placing conservation easements on farms and ranches with senior water rights and continue to build on those landowner relationships to develop, implement, and steward a variety of EQIP practices that will be used throughout the watershed.

Rationale for to the project to generate conservation benefits

There are significant challenges faced by the communities in the target area that threaten the Hispano land ownership and stewardship of the acequias within the Rio Culebra watershed., where 86% of its members share demographic, geographic, or economic characteristics which impede or prevent their access to services. A 2018 Strategic Plan Study conducted by Adams State University, found the average annual income for acequia landowners to be $17,200.00, well below the federal poverty level.

To address these needs Colorado Open Lands has spent significant staff and resources over the past nine years helping the community identify priorities and resource needs. In the implementation of the first Phase of the Acequia Initiative RCPP (Project number 1826) Colorado Open Lands (COL) worked with partners and community members to build an understanding of NRCS programs and see the on the ground benefits of these programs. Once the landowners could see the projects in action the applications for both programs filled. In the current RCPP we were able to commit funds for 2128 acres of conservation easement with 8 landowners. In terms of the EQIP dollars, we have used the funds to Improve irrigation water management and structure replacement. We currently have $125,000 obligated, but with sign-ups that are in the hopper, waiting to be ranked, we will obligate those funds in early 2020. The interest in the program far exceeded the goals of the Phase l RCPP application.

Continued placement of these easements has become a critical element in the sustainability of underserved farms and ranches in the Culebra Basin. There is an additional 2912 acres that could be funded with a second phase of the Acequia Initiative RCPP. There is an additional 2912 acres that could be funded with a second phase of the Acequia Initiative RCPP. The ACEP-ALE program has helped these farms and ranches protect key water assets, by tying the water to the land. This is the fundamental premise behind the acequia tradition. ACEP-ALE monies funded through the RCPP Program provide two critical needs: the RCPP Program funding lets us target the ranking criteria, comparing acequia properties with each other to level the playing field. Secondly, an RCPP contract helps us bring other funders to the table and together we make significant changes to the long-term sustainability of the acequia community. The conservation easements placed through the funding of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program prohibit further subdivision of these prime agricultural lands and ensure that the communities rich Hispano farming and ranching culture remains intact.

The EQIP funding pool through the RCPP program meets two critical needs: having a targeted ranking tool lets these landowners be compared to like size projects instead of the open ranking where ranking against larger projects is difficult and the RCPP contracts attract and are leveraged by a diverse array of matching funds which increase project impact.

Finally, the RCPP gives our state and regional NRCS Partners additional technical assistance funding, giving them the opportunity to provide assistance to a diverse group in need of their assistance.

Rationale for the geographic scope of the project

This area is of both state and national conservation significance and is supported by Hispano farmers who have a united vision for improved watershed health and protection of their water rights to ensure continued viability of their productive and culturally-unique agricultural community. The target area of the initiative is the Rio Culebra watershed, a sub-watershed of the Upper Rio Grande River watershed in Southern Colorado. As a result of long-term investment by Colorado Open Lands, this area has long-standing partnerships between nonprofits, NRCS staff, and landowners. Outreach and engagement events have resulted in an agricultural community with a strong vision for its future. These landowners and partners stand ready to implement this proposal which supports their vision for agricultural sustainability and watershed health.

This population in this geographic target area is comprised of historically underserved Hispano farmers and ranchers. The community faces financial and educational hardships due and agriculture within the Rio Culebra is being pressured on many fronts. A long-term drought has priced water at a premium, ongoing economic instability has left many irrigation structures in need of repair and a water export threat are among the concerns the area is facing. This leaves many acequia landowners feeling that their agricultural heritage is in danger. To address these pressures and increase the economic and ecological sustainability of this unique watershed and its agricultural producers, the following Colorado resource priorities will be addressed in this RCPP project: long-term land protection, soil quality health and productivity, water quality and quantity, terrestrial and aquatic habitat, erosion and long term resilience.

These resource concerns have been repeatedly identified through a variety of stakeholder studies. As part of the 8-Digit Watershed Planning process, area conservation districts highlighted the need to preserve water quantity and quality by integrating healthy soil practices. During landscape planning conducted by the USFWS, it was recognized that portions of the Rio Culebra provide key habitat for the federally endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and noted the need to conserve this habitat. Studies from the University of New Mexico have shown that acequias provide substantial emergent freshwater wetlands and serve key groundwater recharge functions. The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area designation study identified the unique historical and water resource features as key part of the federal designation process. The Costilla County Economic Development Council 2012 report named the local agriculture as the number one economic driver in the region; noting that the area’s small farms and ranches (averaging 63 acres in size) support the areas schools, health care systems and small businesses.

Finally, Colorado recently adopted its first statewide water plan, which is built on the local and regional planning efforts done by each of its river basins. The Rio Grande Basin plan has identified the following resource issues: prolonged and systemic drought, lack of a diverse economy, at-risk wildlife habitats, compact obligations to downstream states and aging irrigation and municipal water infrastructure. The plan further identified the need for collaboration, bringing technical expertise and monetary resources to address these needs. The implementation of key NRCS EQIP programs by producers throughout the watershed will add sustainability to this economically and ecologically endangered area.

Evaluating the success of the project, including outcomes

Colorado Open Lands has developed a comprehensive evaluation tool that will help us direct successful project outcomes. The Acequia Initiative – Phase l RCPP allowed the partners of the project an opportunity to trial this methodology, which proved to successfully keep partners on track, keep the community engaged and provided a platform to address issues that might arise during implementation.

COL will be using a community assets model to evaluate the success of the Acequia Initiative Phase ll RCPP projects and programs. The project will be assessed using the following parameters:

  • Natural and Working Lands - Did the placement of easements and incorporation of practices lead to healthier natural resources? How? How did the project protect the assets of working lands?
  • Financial - Did monetary assets invested in land protection, site improvements and programs build economic health? Was the conservation of the property an active catalyst improving the communities economic outlook?
  • Built - Did the improved ag infrastructure serve the needs and meet the desired outcomes?
  • Equity and Access - Did the placement of both easements and practices increase equity for the community? How did it equalize the disparity? Political -How did the project, support or enhance individual, group and organizational connections? Did the project influence the distribution of resources and identify what resources are available?
  • Social - Was trust built? Did relationships and networks that support communities and regional investments around conservation lead to conversations, shared experiences and connections?
  • Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual - How did the project connect people with the landscape and generate new knowledge?
  • Cultural - Did the placement of the conservation easement support the values and identity rooted in place, class and/or ethnicity? Do on the ground conservation efforts support and enhance the cultural knowledge? How does the project showcase cultural achievement and pass on knowledge and skills?
  • Data - Number of acres conserved? Stream reach protected? Infrastructure installed?

The final report will include the results of the project along these parameters as compared to the baseline data collected at project onset. Here is what we expect to have through the implementation of each program:

The success of the ACEP portion of this proposal will be based on the successful completion an additional six conservation easements within the Rio Culebra watershed protecting the Rio Culebra itself, as well as the critical water rights and prime soils that serve as the foundation for this agriculture-based community and economy. The completion of this second RCPP will increase protection for some of the most senior water rights in the state and see an additional increase in the participation of historically underserved landowners in the ALE program. All COL easements are monitored annually by the COL stewardship staff. This ongoing stewardship ensures the success of the RCPP outcomes long after project completion.

EQIP Programs/Projects: Properties that utilize these programs will work with NRCS technicians to develop a conservation plan. Site will be mapped and photographed at the implementation phase. COL and the SdCAA will conduct landowner surveys to document current uses, yield and water use data to include: water availability and application. The same survey will be conducted post project. The project team will use the data to quantify changes. We expect to see better utilization of irrigation water, increased water efficiencies, riparian and stream health improvements, better grazing management and more sustainable operations. Partners will use the data to assess the replicability of project components and summarize the success and improvements needed. This will be released to all participants and partners upon project completion.

Helping Producers meet or avoid natural resource regulatory requirements?

This project will help improve and protect critical habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a federally recognized Threatened Species as well as the Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Billed Cuckoo, both listed as Endangered Species. Proactive habitat improvement through the Acequia Initiative Phase II will continue to demonstrate agricultural compatibility with these species and avoid any regulatory action.

Partner Contribution

The RCPP team for the Acequia Conservation Initiative Phase I ll include a diverse group of stakeholders who are committed to the unique acequia history, heritage, landscape and agriculture-based values in the Rio Culebra Watershed. The lead partner for this project will be Colorado Open Lands (COL). COL is a 501(c)3 nonprofit land trust that exists to protect olorado’s land and water resources. Led by a full-time staff of twenty and governed by a Board of Directors with wide ranging expertise, Colorado Open Lands operates efficiently and effectively. olorado Open Lands’ oard of Directors brings a wide range of expertise to our work that includes the financial, real estate, legal, public relations, economic, natural resource, agricultural, and wildlife fields.

Our staff has an equally wide range of expertise that spans fundraising, non-profit management, environmental education, community outreach and engagement, and event management, to geographic information systems (GIS), rangeland ecology, conservation easement negotiations and stewardship, ecosystem science and water rights law. We work primarily with private landowners to place voluntary conservation easements on their property. We also have a comprehensive stewardship program that works with landowners to help them reach the resource goals they have set for their property. The process is driven by the wishes of the landowner with the goal of protecting open space, agriculture, water, and wildlife habitat – forever. Founded in 1981, Colorado Open Lands holds 470 conservation easements in 44 Colorado counties. We are proud of the fact that we have played a direct and critical role in protecting nearly 520,000 acres and protected over 358 miles of olorado’s waterways. COL has successfully administered approximately $25 million in conservation easement funding. As a result of our initial RCPP The Acequia Initiative Phase l (Contract 1826), COL has developed an RCPP management team, this includes San Luis Valley Conservation Project Manager, Judy Lopez; Conservation Director, Sarah Parmar; Stewardship Director, Cheryl Cufre; Stewardship Land Owner Liaison, Jaclyn Kachelmeyer and Finance Director, Lori Pufahl. The local contact for COL will be Conservation Project Manager, Judy Lopez.

Key partners for the project include the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – State Office: Randy Randal, Becky Ross, Heather Foley and James Sperry; NRCS Colorado Area 3 – lead by District Conservationist, Ron Riggenbach; Trout Unlimited National Project Affiliate, Kevin Terry; Sangre de Cristo Acequia Associati on (SdCAA), led by Office Administrator, Nancy Escalante; Costilla Conservation District, Costilla County Conservancy District (a local water entity), Costilla County Commissioners, The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, The Gates Family Foundation, The LOR Foundation, The Trinchera Blanca Foundation, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and participating landowners.

Along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado Open Lands provides conservation planning and assistance to landowners to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals for productive land and healthy ecosystems. Trout Unlimited works to develop programs and recommendations based on the very best information and thinking available. Together these three-primary technical assistance partners have the experience in managing, developing, stewarding and implementing a variety conservation projects and each will be bringing their abilities to this critical RCCP project.

The Acequia landowners alongside the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, Costilla Conservation District, Costilla County Conservancy District, and the Costilla County Commissioners will provide the critical local voice for the project. Colorado Open lands has worked with these community partners for over 9 years and it is through this work that the original RCPP project was conceived and this application was developed. Together they will see this multi-year proposal to fruition and will support the landowner education and outreach needed to implement the identified conservation practices.

Value Added Partner Contribution

The Acequia Initiative Phase I leveraged $3.2 million dollars and Acequia Initiative Phase II leverage $2.7 million in state and private funding. . The reengagement and continued commitment by funders of the first phase of the Acequia Initiative have returned for Phase ll, speaks to the success the partnership has had in addressing the areas resource concerns.

The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association and the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable have committed to match requested EQIP funds. The LOR Foundation, Great Outdoors Colorado, Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, Trinchera-Blanca Foundation, Rio Grande Basin Roundtable and landowners will match ALE funding and provide funds for the necessary the acquisition and due diligence to complete the conservation easements.

Finally, Colorado Open Lands, The Costilla Conservation District, the Costilla Water Conservancy District and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association will supply and support the landowner education and outreach needed to implement the identified conservation practices as part of the project in-kind.

Like phase one, the second phase of this this project is highly leveraged, with NRS’s contribution limited to 38% of the project costs, NRCS funds will be matched by both public and private funding.


The funding provided through the RCPP program allows us to target the specific resource needs of Acequia Farmers in the Culebra Basin, which are different from other agricultural producers in Colorado. The smaller scale of acequia farms and ranches makes it challenging for these landowners to compete in regular rounds of the ACEP-ALE and EQIP include all landowners in the area. The small scale of these properties also makes it difficult to address resource concerns on a property by property basis. The cumulative impact of RCPP in bringing a significant number of landowners into programs at one time in a targeted, strategic manner that allows the partners to garner the necessary funding and scale of landowner participation to impact resources at a watershed scale.

The Acequia Conservation Initiative specifically targets Hispano-owned family farms and ranches in Costilla County Colorado by connecting these underserved acequia landowners to resources that will enable management for improved agricultural and watershed health, at the same time permanently linking the land and water through conservation easements. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill) recognized the unique circumstances and concerns of traditionally underserved producers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is committed to ensuring that its programs and services are accessible to all our customers, fairly and equitably, with emphasis on reaching the underserved and socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and tribes. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the Rio Culebra acequia communities, that were settled as part of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. These farms and ranches have been supporting over 300 families for seven generations, but they face some critical challenges that include olorado’s increasing development pressure, long-term drought, economic instability and water export.

Further, the USDA has long recognized the relationship between water quality and quantity when it comes to irrigation. The NRS standard practices address a critical tenet and “Efficiently convey and distribute irrigation water to the soil surface point of application without causing excessive water loss, erosion, or water quality impairment.” The olorado !g Water !lliance found that “improving basic infrastructure in an agricultural operation, assures not only the success of an individual operation, but also protects the agricultural assets of operations in the area.”

The partners will work with landowners by building on past project success to execute projects that address the resource concerns this historically underserved population is facing. The implementation of land protection, irrigation improvement, soil health, habitat, and resiliency planning projects at an appropriate scale permanently protect critical land and water rights and ensure the long-term sustainability of the community.

10 Describe any proposed innovative methods or approaches for conservation planning, implementation, or assessment, and/or the proposed use of promising new technologies that have a demonstrated likelihood of success.

The Acequia Initiative Phase ll is a nexus of innovation. Since project participation is open only to acequia farm/ranch producers in the Rio Culebra watershed, it is very focused on preserving the cultural integrity of this rural farming region. This area has been recognized by the US Department of Interior’s Great Outdoors Initiative; named by US Fish and Wildlife Service as the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area, Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area has named it one of the last surviving representations of the Hispano culture. The National Park Service and History Colorado recognize the area as a unique representation of the culture that settled Colorado and New Mexico. The RCPP enables partners and local stakeholder who have all been independently doing successful work in the target area to come together and approach the resource issues in the target area in a holistic manner and at a greater scale than could be achieved by any of the groups independently. The group’s approach to resource concerns couples key resource practices and restoration with projects that increase farm and ranch revenue, at the same time permanently protecting the prime soil and senior water rights on which the agricultural and ecological system depends.

Partnerships and Management

This project will be the second phase of the RCPP funded Acequia Conservation Initiative (1826) that was funded in 2017. Our original goal was to place 2000 acres under conservation easements. To date we have committed funds for 2128 acres across 8 landowners. This work generated an additional 2912 acres acequia irrigated acres could be funded with the RCPP renewal. Placing easements on acequia properties has become a critical element in the sustainability of the acequia underserved farms and ranches. The ACEP-ALE has allowed these farms and ranches to protect key water assets, by tying the water to the land. This is fundamental premise behind the acequia tradition. In terms of the EQIP dollars, we have used the funds to Improve irrigation water management and structure replacement on eight landowner properties. We currently have $125,000 obligated and have additional -but with sign-up applications that are ready at the local NRCS office and are simply waiting for the 2018 farm bill rules to be adopted before projects can be ranked. We will obligate those funds easily in early 2020, two and a half years ahead of schedule.

COL has worked with NRCS to secure a variety of agricultural land easements across the state of Colorado. Together we have protected numerous acres of grasslands, prime soils, agricultural lands that have statewide and regional significance and worked to ensure the economic viability of underserved and first-time farmers and ranchers.

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