TUCSON (CN) – Tombstone, “the town too tough to die,” says it’s running out of water because the U.S. Forest Service refuses to allow crews into nearby mountain wilderness areas to repair water lines damaged by a landslide of “Volkswagen-sized” boulders.
Tombstone, population 1,562, sued the United States of America and the Forest Service’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Federal Court.
Tombstone says its 1.2-million gallon reservoir is nearly dry. As a result, the little town about 70 miles southeast of Tucson faces a water shortage during its busy winter tourist season, when it trades on its Wild West history and swells with visitors from all over the world.
Tombstone pipes most of its water from springs in the Huachuca Mountains, in Coronado National Forest. Some of the damaged stretches of the city’s 26-mile pipeline are in designated wilderness areas, where using anything with a motor requires a special permit.
A forest fire raged through the Huachuca Mountains in May and June, destroying dozens of homes and causing hundreds of evacuations. Called the Monument Fire after the mountain range’s Coronado National Monument, the blaze destroyed much of the area’s underbrush and left the landscape susceptible to mudslides.
“Soon after the Monument fire was extinguished, record rain began to fall in July 2011, thus causing massive mud and rock slides due to the fact that the vegetation had been consumed by fire,” the complaint states. “Volkswagen-sized boulders landed on many areas of the metal pipeline, thus damaging the pipeline and preventing spring water from accessing the pipeline and literally shutting off the stream of Huachuca Mountain water to the City of Tombstone.”
The city says it has rented bulldozers and is ready to repair the pipeline, but the Forest Service keeps stalling – and even threatened to arrest city workers.
“Permission to access the wilderness area and pipeline was granted by every federal agency except the U.S. Forest Service, which only recently provided Tombstone with a temporary permit to access only the lower levels of only one canyon,” the complaint states. “In fact, employees and officials of the U.S. Forest Service have, on multiple occasions purposely prevented Tombstone from accessing its land and right-of-ways and, in fact, threatened to arrest Tombstone employees if they did not cease and desist from working on the pipeline until ‘proper permits were obtained from the Regional Forester.’ And, although the Regional Forester has determined that Tombstone’s issue is, in fact, an emergency, he has done very little to expedite the permit process and has refused to return multiple telephone calls from Tombstone’s City Attorney. The emergency funds are being wasted on rented vehicles and equipment that remain idle in the mountains waiting for additional permits from the USFS. Several of these rental vehicles and pieces of equipment, standing idle, have been vandalized and damaged, resulting in additional expenses to the city that could have been devoted to repairs to its water line.”
Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency in Tombstone after the rock slides, and stipulated that the repairs must be done by Feb. 15, 2012, but that won’t happen if the Forest Service continues to withhold the permits, the city says.
Tombstone says the Forest Service mistreated city employees with “demeaning, abusive and harassing behavior.”
“As of December 5, 2011, the USFS has issued one permit for the lower spring heads in Miller Canyon and is stalling on the issuance of any other permits,” the complaint states. “Tombstone’s 1.2-million gallon reservoir that catches the water from the Huachuca Mountains is virtually dry, thus prompting emergency action by this court.
Additionally, since the inception of attempts by the city to obtain appropriate permits from the U.S. Forest Service to enable the repairs of its water lines, as set forth in this complaint, city employees have been repeatedly subjected to demeaning, abusive and harassing behavior and responses to requests by officials of the U.S. Forest Service. These actions by the agents of the U.S. Forest Service have been taken in violation of federal law and the internal policies and regulations of the U.S. Forest Service, and have effectively blocked efforts by the city to deal with its emergency water situation as described in this complaint.”
A Coronado National Forest spokesperson refused to comment on the lawsuit.
The city seeks declaratory judgment that it has had easements to get to the disputed areas of the Huachuca Mountains since the 1880s. And it wants an injunction preventing the Forest Service from “interfering with plaintiff, either directly or indirectly, with plaintiff’s right and obligation to repair and maintain its land and reservoirs located within the Coronado National Forest.”
The city is represented by P. Randall Bays of Sierra Vista.
Tombstone is home to Boot Hill and was the site of the famous 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral between the lead actors, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, and the Clanton brothers and Johnny Ringo.