Publication Title

Willamette Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution

Document Type



This paper offers commentary on the appropriateness of viewing, as a human right, the authority to manage water and to participate meaningfully in watershed governance, and it takes as an example the community of Hispano farmers of the Rio Culebra watershed of Southern Colorado in the headwaters of the Upper Rio Grande. In earlier work, the authors have written about the uneasy relationship between the formal system of appropriative water rights under Colorado law and the enduring set of local water norms practiced within acequias—the traditional water governance institutions and irrigation systems of the Culebra's Hispano farmers. The present narrative will frame that work as part of the inquiry of Willamette University College of Law's Water Law Symposium into the nature of the human right to water in the American West. The history and present circumstances of the Culebra acequia farmers, as a case study, offer insight into the importance of recognizing group rights to exercise control over necessary water resources as a foundation for the protection of community rights to viable economic life, food security, and cultural survival. At issue in the acequia communities is the protection of communitarian power over water resources as a requirement for the survival of a very specific set of relations between people and the landscape in which they live.

This paper will present a condensed account of the relevant history and present circumstances of the Culebra acequias necessary to understanding possible human rights arguments that support protection of acequia institutions and promote full engagement by acequia farmers in governance of the watersheds on which their irrigation communities depend. The paper will speak to the value of achieving true pluralism in water law and institutions to protect the social and natural resource capital of marginalized communities and to advance the human rights of economic and cultural life.



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