MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations


Water Wars
The Battle to Save Rio Costilla

In northern New Mexico water is often said to be the lifeblood of communities, a truism that is nowhere more apparent than in the border towns of Garcia, Colorado, and Costilla, New Mexico, villages rendered virtual ghost towns by the loss of the Rio Costilla. Water can divide a people and, judging by those gathered in this room, it can bring them together.

Although the coalition in this room began to form in late 1996, the people of Garcia and Costilla have been fighting for decades to claim their rightful water rights and restore water to the river. But for decades no one has listened. It wasn't until Amigos Bravos, a New Mexico-based river protection organization, was brought into the debate a year and a half ago that public officials began to pay attention to the people from these small towns along the border.

With the participation of Amigos Bravos, this coalition has made remarkable headway over the course of the last year. After fighting for 50 years to be heard, the townspeople along the Rio Costilla have garnered the attention of state engineers in both Colorado and New Mexico, as well as the Interstate Stream Commission, and have brought to the table all the players involved along the river - from ranchers to farmers, environmentalists to hardened politicos.

Returning water to the Costilla is not simply a matter of restoring the river; it is about restoring a way of life, supporting traditional acequias and the sustainable village-scale agriculture they employ. Unlike industrialized agriculture, which depends heavily on mining nonrenewable waters from subterranean aquifers, acequia agriculture is a sustainable practice based on rivers. Derived from an Arabian practice, the acequia system diverts water from the river into acequia ditches. Depending on the priority of one's claim, the water is distributed first to one parciantes' - or acequia participants' - ditch then another by means of gates which are opened or closed to receive or restrict water flow. Given the communal nature of shared water, it's no surprise that this system is more than irrigation: it is a fundamental element of community organization and the earliest form of government in these parts. Given that some 45 percent of acequia waters are returned to the rivers after their passage through irrigation ditches via the desague - a channel for recycling unused water - acequia-based agriculture is also, if well managed, sustainable.

At a time when environmentalists are popularly vilified as being "pro-nature" and "anti-people," the fight in Costilla is a compelling example of the connection between saving a river and saving a town. The coalition itself is a powerful refutation of the stereotype of environmentalists as monied, Anglo urbanites seeking to preserve "wilderness" at the expense of the people who depend on the land to live - a conflict nowhere more apparent than in culturally diverse northern New Mexico. The story offers a model for successful, multicultural, coalition building and an example of effective collaboration between an environmental group and community members. It is a story of how environmental destruction can devastate a community, and of how fighting for a river can be fighting for a way of life. It is a reminder that environmental action needn't sacrifice people for the sake of nature, nor nature for the sake of a buck. It is a story that's far from over.

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