Thursday, June 7, 2012
The “Town too Tough to Die” is now squaring off against the U.S. Forest Service in what could be the fight of its life, a battle over water rights.
On Friday and Saturday, a group called the Shovel Brigade will gather in Tombstone and head to the Huachuca Mountains to make repairs to the city’s waterline, which was damaged by mudslides and boulders after last summer’s Monument Fire flooding. While the 26-mile waterline — fed by springs in the Huachuca Mountains — has been Tombstone’s main water source for 130 years, the U.S. Forest Service is refusing to allow mechanized equipment into areas to make the repairs. Citing the Wilderness Act, the forest service is concerned about environmental damage that heavy equipment could cause to wilderness areas while excavation work and rebuilding are underway.
“Twenty four springs and one reservoir located in the Huachuca Mountains make up our water supply,” said George Barnes, Tombstone’s city clerk. “We’ve been allowed to make repairs to three of the springs, but we have a long way to go before the entire water system is rebuilt. There are sections of the line that mudslides have buried under 12 feet of debris, and the forest service is requiring us to make the repairs by hand, using picks and shovels.”
That’s where the Shovel Brigade comes in. After learning about the city’s dilemma, communities across the country have been sending shovels to Tombstone, some bearing signatures and messages of support. To date, more than 500 shovels have arrived in Tombstone. And on Friday, around 1,000 people are expected to gather at the old high school football field off Fremont Street to raise public awareness about the city’s water issue. In addition, volunteers will be traveling to the Huachuca Mountains to work on the waterline, making repairs by hand, as stipulated by the forest service.
“We’ve received almost no cooperation from the federal government on this issue,” said Tombstone’s former mayor Jack Henderson, who was in the mountains doing excavation work on the line when agents ordered him to leave.
“Our story has been picked up by CNN, Fox, Rush Limbaugh, John Stossel and the Washington Examiner, not to mention towns all over the country. The Goldwater Institute has joined our fight and is representing us in court.”
In August, Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency and provided funds to help with the aqueduct’s repairs.
While the forest service has allowed Tombstone access to three of its springs, the city has not been allowed to work on the remaining 21.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake is currently sponsoring federal legislation that will allow Tombstone to repair the damaged water lines without going though federal permits.
In addition, Tombstone Archivist Nancy Sosa has been requested to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee on Friday regarding Flake’s bill and the challenges Tombstone has been facing.
The town’s 26-mile, gravity-fed system was built in the 1880s as the Huachuca Water Company and has been hailed “an engineering marvel.” An article that appears in an 1882 edition of the Tombstone Epitaph talks about the pipeline and its route from Miller, Marshall and Carr Canyons as it makes its way to Tombstone. In 1908 the Huachuca Water Company was purchased by A.E. Davis who sold the entire water system to the City of Tombstone in 1947. In addition, the city owns original documents showing every appropriation of the water system, with the first appropriation from Miller Canyon in 1881.
“The city’s ownership of this system predates statehood and the forest service,” said Tombstone City Councilman Steve Troncale.
“Each appropriation of water comes with a land description and map indicating the city of Tombstone owns the water rights. All of this is court ordered through sales and a declaration of ownership of property to Tombstone.”
Through the years, the system has provided an ample supply of potable water to the residents of Tombstone, along with the 400,000 tourists that visit the town annually. But now, the town is left with three repaired springs, along with one reliable well for its water. With fire season here, the ability to provide adequate water for fire suppression is a concern.
“In my opinion, the forest service has made several mistakes,” said Kevin Rudd, who was hired by Tombstone as project manager for the system’s repair work. “The first and obvious one is forest mismanagement that put Tombstone in this predicament in the first place.”
Rudd said that once the damage was done, the forest service should have allowed Tombstone into the wilderness area to “repair our system which would facilitate Tombstone’s obligation to protect its residents. Instead, they used the Wilderness Act as a tool to delay our repair process.”
Rudd also noted that the city of Tombstone began contacting the forest service about
accessing damaged areas to start the repairs “long before the situation was declared an emergency” by Brewer.
“When monsoon rains began to pound the canyons in July of 2011, Nancy Sosa began contacting the forest service to let them know about our pending dilemma because she knew from experience what was coming.”
Rudd disagrees with U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata’s recent decision to deny the city’s emergency request to repair the water system. Zapata’s decision is based on the argument that “repairs to the system appear to be substantially complete.”
Those repairs, Rudd argues, are preliminary, with temporary welds holding salvaged pipe in place where the main aqueduct was blown out. Collection structures, once made of concrete and protected by metal cages were destroyed during the mudslides and are now made of temporary sand bags and plastic pipe.
“Our situation right now is precarious,” said Barnes. “If our one well goes down, or we receive minimal flow from the springs, we’re in a very bad situation.”
However, Zapata does not feel that Tombstone faces a crisis. “Claims of a drastic water emergency related to public consumption and fire needs are overstated and speculative,” he has been quoted as stating.
Troncale points to a huge restaurant fire that occurred in Tombstone about 18 months ago where the establishment, Six Gun City, burned to the ground. The fire, he said, could have destroyed the entire town.
“It was our water supply, fire department and the backup that we got from other fire districts that saved this town from complete disaster,” he said.
“The supply of water that we have right now is not adequate to fight a fire of that magnitude. If we have another fire like Six Gun City’s, this entire town could be
During a special Cochise County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, the board unanimously supported a resolution that calls for “…the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service in the repair and maintenance of its (Tombstone’s) municipal water
The supervisors’ support came as welcome news to Tombstone officials, said Barnes. In part, the resolution states that the forest service has impaired the ability of agents of the city of Tombstone “to make repairs to its water system by restricting access…” to the system. Concerns about the health and safety of the residents of Tombstone, along with its visitors also are noted.
In addition, the resolution supports Tombstone’s right to “immediate and unimpaired access to Coronado National Forest lands located in the Huachuca Mountains, free of federal restraint to make all necessary repairs to its water
Tombstone city officials are hoping the publicity the town has been receiving, along with legislative support, will generate enough public pressure to allow the work to be completed without further delays.
“Our beef is with the forest service, not the forest,” said Barnes. “We want to re-establish what we already had.”
Henderson agrees. “With the monsoons just around the corner, we’re bracing for more damage,” he said.
“The Tombstone Shovel Brigade is just another layer of support we’ve received in this convoluted process. The good news is, we’ve already won this fight in the court of public opinion, and the state of Arizona recognizes our rights. Now we need to do is convince the federal government.”