Sunday, May 20, 2012
Judge Denies Tombstone Water
It is fire season in the West. Reports say the early start is “not a good sign,” and forecasts claim the “combination of heat and dryness will only make western wildfires worse.” The predictions were made in the same week that US District Judge Frank Zapata made a decision to deny an emergency request by the city of Tombstone, AZ, to repair its water system damaged in last year’s Monument Fire. He doesn’t think Tombstone has a crisis. Zapata said: “Claims of a drastic water emergency related to public consumption and fire needs are overstated and speculative.”
Though he was born in a small town, seven miles from the third highest mountain in Arizona, Zapata apparently has not lived with the eminent threat of forest fire. Having grown up in the foothills of Southern California where my family had to evacuate several times as the flames pressed toward our home, I understand the importance of water.
I got interested in the Tombstone story when I heard a promo for John Stossel’s show addressing Tombstone’s water woes. He teased the show saying that Tombstone was told they could fix their broken pipes using horses and shovels. This piqued my interest. I’ve written a couple of columns addressing the Forest Service’s requirements for mining claims in Montana that included hand tools and pack mules. You’d think they make this stuff up just for TV, but it’s real—as is the threat of fire in Tombstone.
In short, here is Tombstone’s tale. (Click here for a long version.)
Tombstone is a small city in the Arizona desert. They get their water from the nearby Huachuca Mountains through one of the longest gravity-fed systems in the country. Tombstone has an unbroken chain of ownership to the water. The pipeline that brings the water the 26 miles from the springs to Tombstone goes back to before Arizona was a state, way before there was a US Forest Service, or a federal wilderness act.
Last year, on June 16, the massive Monument Fire and the subsequent monsoon rains destroyed the pipelines that bring the water to Tombstone and boulders the size of Volkswagens blocked access to the springs—with some of the springs being buried under 12-15 feet of rock, gravel, and broken trees. Jack Henderson, who was Mayor at the time of the disaster recalls, “There was nothing left. It looked like a moonscape. We lost the war up there.”
In fact, the war was just beginning—but the war was not against nature; rather it is against the essential philosophy of our present national government.
In August, Governor Brewer declared a state of emergency for Tombstone, which provided $50,000 to the city to make repairs. The city rented equipment and applied for and received permits—except for those from the US Forest Service. By the end of October, the city grew tired of waiting. They took an excavator up to the springs. The Forest Service stopped them with the threat of arrest
Kathleen Nelson, acting ranger in charge of the Coronado National Forest, says the Forest Service has been letting Tombstone do some work to restore its water supply “as long as it complies with the 1964 Wilderness Act”—meaning Tombstone can do the work with shovels and haul the pipe up the mountain with horses (really!). More recently, workers were stopped from using a wheel barrow. Rangers say the wheel barrow is “mechanized” and “might damage wilderness and disturb endangered species.” The feds are blocking emergency repairs that are critical to Tombstone’s survival.
I've been telling people you can't ride a bicycle in a wilderness area. Now maybe some folks will believe me. This wheel chair I'm sitting in isn't allowed either. Keep in mind this is what the Border Patrol and your Sheriff have been struggling with for years.