Will water supply lead to death of Tombstone?

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By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer
By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer
By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer
By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer
By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer By Adrian Campa / 3TV photographer

TOMBSTONE, Ariz. -- It is known as the town too tough to die, but will the federal government now do what a silver bust and desert dust could not and kill off the city of Tombstone?

It is not unusual to hear the blasts of gunfire from the O.K. Corral, where actors re-create the famous shootout, but Christina Sandefur, of the Goldwater Institute, said even that famous shootout is nothing compared to what Tombstone is facing now.

“You can forget the O.K. Corral, this is the ultimate showdown," she said.

On one side, the  faceless federal bureaucracy known as Washington. On the other, the town too tough to die. According to Sandefur, the town of Tombstone's very life is at stake.

Sandefur said the feds are cutting off Tombstone's lifeblood -- its water supply.

“There is some water, it is definitely not enough,” she said.

That's because Tombstone's water actually starts in the Huachuca Mountains, some 30 miles from the town itself, piped in from natural springs until the massive Monument Fire and the floods that followed last year. 

“Debris flows came through here and washed out and buried our springs, destroyed our collection structures and a large section of our main aqueduct,” said Kevin Rudd, Tombstone Public Works project manager.

That literally stopped any water flowing into Tombstone. Since then, Rudd has been working to uncover the springs, replace pipe and stop the leaks that are stealing precious gallons.

But not only is he facing the destruction left by nature, he is facing a challenge from the Forest Service.

“They said if you want to come up and repair some of your springs, you have to do it with horses and hand tools,” Sandefur said.

Because this is a designated wilderness area, no motorized or mechanical equipment is allowed in. Even a wheelbarrow was declared off limits.

So crews have secured collection ponds and laid temporary pipe restoring at least a trickle of water back to town, all by hand. But permanent repairs are beyond their reach.

“We would be here for several more months, if not a couple of years, digging," Rudd said. "We would be using chains and come-alongs, and it would take several dozen people several weeks to get this section repaired.”

Leaving the city on the edge of disaster, according to Rudd.

“The amount of water we are collecting here is less than one-third of what we historically use from the springs and it has put us in a bad way,” Rudd said.

It's a sentiment echoed by Sandefur.

“They don't have the water pressure to maintain the flow in case of a fire,” she said.

The Goldwater Institute has filed suit on behalf of Tombstone. A district judge ruled against them. They are now appealing to the 9th Circuit, wondering just why the feds are locking them out.

”Actually, during court argument the judge asked the government that very question," Sandefur said. "The judge said, 'Why don't you just let Tombstone go in and fix their springs?' and the Forest Service said, 'Because we don't have to.'“

And in the meantime, Rudd said workers will keep their hands busy on repairs knowing if the showdown in court fails, Mother Nature will get another shot.

“So this year when the monsoons come in July the floods are going to happen again and everything we have done is going to be completely destroyed again,“ he said.

Rudd finds it even more extraordinary that the federal government is keeping repair crews out because he feels years of poor forest management led to the destruction left behind by the Monument Fire.

Sandefur said this issue is much bigger than Tombstone. It has to do with states' rights and federal intervention on state sovereignty.