Thirsty Tourists?

The town of Tombstone claims the U.S. Forest Service is threatening its water supply

Tombstone's history is the stuff of Wild West lore, with gunfights in the street and strong-arm robberies by masked men.

But the "town too tough to die" has adapted to modern times—and, like the rest of us, now fights its battles in court.

Last month, Tombstone officials filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service in an effort to regain access to water they say the town has owned the rights to for more than 130 years.

A series of freshwater springs nestled in the Huachuca Mountains west of town—not to mention a 26-mile pipeline connecting Tombstone to the water—were badly damaged last year by the massive Monument Fire, as well as subsequent monsoon-fueled mudslides.

The pipeline, which is the conduit for Tombstone's main water source, has been out of commission for nearly six months, putting the town in a situation where it must pump from a pair of local wells that can provide only two days' worth of water at a time.

That means that until the pipeline is fixed, any out-of-the-ordinary incident could be disastrous to Tombstone's water supply, City Manager George Barnes said.

"If we had a well fail right now—we nearly had one freeze a while ago—we'd have to start thinking about what we're going to do," Barnes said. "We'd have to pray for rain or something."

Barnes said efforts to repair the pipeline have been under way since Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency in August and released $50,000 in funding to help out Tombstone. But delays in receiving the necessary permits from the U.S. Forest Service—a requirement for any project that could disturb land within the Coronado National Forest, which include the Huachuca Mountains—have resulted in Tombstone having access to only two of its 24 water sources.

That's a violation of Tombstone's claim to those water sources, claims that go back to the town's formation in 1879, according to the lawsuit, filed Dec. 28 in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

"Our argument is simple: We have property and water and access rights that we've had for 130 years," Barnes said. "When does a federal agency have the authority to deny access to what is essentially our property?"

U.S. Forest Service officials declined to comment specifically about the lawsuit. But Heidi Schewel, a spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest, said any delays Tombstone is experiencing in its attempt to repair the pipeline are the same procedural ones that would happen with any request to "disturb" the wilderness.

"The wilderness has been set aside to preserve values that people expect from it," she said.

When a work request is made, a Minimum Requirement Decision Guide must be completed to determine whether such activity is necessary, and the minimum number of tools necessary to complete the work, Schewel said. Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch approved permits in early November and mid-December for two areas where Tombstone wanted to bring in heavy machinery to fix its pipeline, but three more permits are waiting on the results of the MRDGs, Schewel said.

"Everything we do, practically, is defined by law," she said. "We don't have much wiggle room."

Tombstone officials say the permitting process may be a stall tactic in an effort to try to ultimately deny the town's rights to the water.

"We have seen veiled efforts by the Forest Service to capture our water," Barnes said.

Barnes wouldn't go into specifics, but court filings associated with the suit mention some in-the-field verbal exchanges between town employees and Forest Service personnel that bordered on schoolyard-style chest-puffing. Statements by Tombstone Mayor Jack Henderson and two city employees say they were told by Forest Service officials to "call President Obama if you want to get your repairs done," and that Tombstone officials were referred to as "just a bunch of children who think they know the law and what you are doing."

So far, no water-rationing has been ordered for Tombstone's 1,500 permanent residents or the dozens of bars, restaurants, hotels and tourist shops. But that hasn't kept business owners from being concerned as the town's tourist season begins.

"I'm just sitting back, waiting," said Kim Herrig, owner of the Crystal Palace Saloon. "Of course it would be an impact (to lose water). It wouldn't be good, that's for sure."

Herrig, who already offers her customers the option of tap water or (for $1.50) bottled water with their meals, said the biggest impact a water shortage or rationing would have on her business is in keeping clean dishes on hand.

"My dishwasher is going all the time," she said.

The Tombstone Chamber of Commerce hasn't begun any efforts to warn businesses of a possible shortage, said Dave Bales, the chamber's vice president. But if there is a shortage, it would likely cause major damage to the town's economy, he said.

"Business has been real slow, and we were hoping it was going to pick up now," said Bales, who is also pastor at the Tombstone Cowboy Church.

A court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 26 in Tucson, at which Tombstone's attorneys will ask for a preliminary injunction blocking the Forest Service from, in effect, blocking Tombstone's repair efforts.

In the meantime, Barnes and town officials will continue to keep their fingers crossed and hope the need to ration water doesn't arise.

"The good thing is, this is a desert community," he said. "No fancy lawns. We don't use a lot of water here, because we haven't had a lot of water."