Fed up with what officials said are unnecessary delays, the city of Tombstone wants a federal judge to clear the way for repairs to its damaged water system in the Huachuca Mountains.
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the city is entitled to unrestricted access to the land where the springs are located as well as rights to an easement of 50 feet on either side of the pipes leading from the springs. More to the point, the city wants a judge to conclude that it can make the repairs necessary after last summer's Monument Fire without having to first get permits from the U.S. Forest Service.
But the city also is telling U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps that if she believes the city still needs Forest Service permits then she should order the federal agency to immediately grant them.
City Manager George Barnes said the decision to sue came after the Forest Service appeared to be dragging its feet on requests to go ahead with repairs.
To date, he said, federal officials have given permits for work on two of the springs that supply water to the city. He said that leaves 22 more to go.
And Barnes said the city was told that requests for the remaining permits "would take a lot longer."
Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel said she could not comment on the litigation.
But Schewel said that because the springs are in a congressionally designated wilderness, her agency is required to review any proposals to disturb the area. She said that includes not only determining whether action is necessary but, if so, how to minimize any disturbance while preserving the wilderness character of the area.
According to the lawsuit, the Monument Fire burned much of the Huachuca Mountains where the springs that feed Tombstone's water supply are located. But the real damage came later when record rains caused massive mud and rock slides.
"Volkswagen sized boulders landed on many areas of the metal pipeline, thus damaging the pipeline … and literally shutting off the stream of Huachuca Mountain water to the city," attorneys for Tombstone said in their court filing.
Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency in August, providing funds for repair. Based on that, the lawsuit says, the city rented earth-moving equipment and vehicles to make repairs.
But the Forest Service has balked at providing access to the wilderness area and the pipeline, the city says.
In fact, according to the legal papers, federal workers "threatened to arrest Tombstone employees if they did not cease and desist from working on the pipeline" until the regional forester issued permits.
But at the same time, the city contends, Corwin Newman Jr., the regional forester, "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," the lawsuit said. And several pieces, sitting idle, have been vandalized or damaged, with the city required to pick up the costs.
And the city said those emergency funds dry up in February.
But Barnes said the real issue is that the city's water supply is in a critical state.
He said the city, which normally gets 50 percent to 80 percent of its water from the mountain springs, is operating its two wells on a full-time basis. But it has what amounts to just a two-day supply in its reservoir.
Barnes said the city needs 200 gallons per minute to meet the needs of its 700 customers. He said even if the city can get some of the Miller Canyon supply back online this week, it will be only half of what Tombstone needs.