News Ticker

High Noon in Tombstone Water Fight

By Eric Jay Toll for The Arizona Builder’s Exchange

Rallying bulldozers, heavy equipment, Goldwater Institute lawyers and town officials in the O.K. Corral, Tombstone squared off with the U.S. Forest Service for a shootout over repair to its Huachuca Mountains water supply. Briefs were fired and when the dust settled, the Forest Service was still standing.

For more than 130 years, Tombstone folks have drawn their water from a system originating near Sierra Vista, about 20 miles away. Those springs are now part of a federal wilderness area—a designation prohibiting any motorized or wheeled vehicles or equipment. Repairs are needed because uncontrolled run-off in a fire-damaged area buried and damaged the city’s water collection system.

The city wants to go into the Coronado National Forest designated wilderness with the equipment necessary to repair and bury pipes, locate and rehabilitate buried springs and build dams and mounds to divert runoff and redirect flash floods.

Although the forest service permitted emergency repairs to get the system working after the storm damage, Tombstone officials say new requirements are putting the town’s health and safety in peril. Guns loaded, the city’s Goldwater Institute attorneys fired that the federal government seeks to “elevate the preservation of a moonscape over Tombstone’s paramount public health and safety interest.”

So far, federal judges aren’t buying the city’s claims.

A June 1st U.S. Supreme Court rebuff left city guns emptied by denying its request for an emergency injunction. The order would have permitted vehicles and excavators to take vehicles into the wilderness area.

Originally, the forest service and city agreed on work allowing piped water delivery to resume. This augmented the city’s limited supply of potable well water.

The city wants to go back in and make some more repairs and is facing what Mayor Stephen Schmidt calls a red tape hold up by forest officials. Trampling on states’ rights and “commandeering” the Tombstone’s water system, is what the city’s lawyers told the Supreme Court.

The federal government’s winning argument pointed out that Tombstone does not specify the wilderness area work’s scope and location.

A federal judge agreed with government lawyers that Tombstone appeared to be expanding – not just repairing – the system by tapping additional springs. In U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata’s May 14 order, he pointed out, “…the court also finds that (Tombstone) cutting a path through a federally protected wilderness area with excavators and other construction equipment would have a significant impact.” The order called the city’s fire impact fears “overstated and speculative.”