Tombstone defined the original frontier boomtown, made famous by the gunfight at the OK Corral and law enforcement legend Wyatt Earp. It was settled at a time when prospectors largely felt the West was up for grabs, and water was theirs to claim.
But last summer’s fires and floods almost wiped out the city’s water infrastructure. Its fight against the government to rebuild it shows just how great the distance is between the Old West, and new.
The fires and floods didn’t just damage Tombstone’s waterlines -- they also opened up for discussion a favorite debate in the American West about whose water this really is.
The water in question starts in the Huachuca Mountains, in the Southeastern corner of Arizona. The spring water bubbles up out of the ground and onto ranch land, which is in a national forest, but then gets immediately funneled into a pipe headed for Tombstone, about 30 miles away. Ranch manager Tom Beatty does not like this.
He points to a puddle his hound dogs are crowding around to drink from, and says, "The only water you see right there is because [The City of Tombstone] has a leak."
The first problem, as Beatty sees is, is that putting water directly into a pipe means that the bobcats and ocelot and mountain lions who live here can’t drink it. His position is that the water should flow downstream, then eventually end up in the aquifer for nearby cities to pump from. Humans can drink from an aquifer, he notes, but wildlife cannot.
The second problem is the spring is in what’s now a designated wilderness area, part of a national forest. This means for Tombstone to fix their water lines, they have to go through the U.S. Forest Service -- which is really the crux of the lawsuit.
"The forest service basically is interfering with the ability of myself and this city to govern itself," said Jack Henderson, Tombstone's former mayor who started the suit. "We can’t go in and fix our own infrastructure."
The Forest Service declined to comment, but court records indicate they are allowing Tombstone to fix their waterlines but within a swarm of rules the city does not like: no fixing the pipes without permits, no heavy machinery next to some of the springs, and no claiming water rights until the government fact-checks this which, in Arizona, could take years.
Consider: Tombstone has been using the water since 1881; it submitted paperwork to have the “right to it” in 1979 and, still, the state hasn’t made a decision.
Yet Tombstone’s leadership insists the water is theirs in a way the rancher, Tom Beatty, thinks is reminiscent of cowboys in the Wild West who just took and did whatever they wanted.
"It's the Hollywood version," Beatty said. "They see it on television, movies and they go there to play cowboy. And that’s what they’re trying to do with this water. But things have changed."
No one in Tombstone knows this better than the city’s archivist, Nancy Sosa. She is terribly worried that the city’s residents are right now relying on only two wells -- one of which often bumps the state’s arsenic limits. She recalls that the before the city had the waterlines to the mountains, Tombstone burned to the ground. Twice.
"This is one of the most historic sites in the state of Arizona," Sosa said. "There’s still silver here. There’s still gold here. There’s a reason for us to be here."
Sosa is used to making a case for Tombstone -- and not just to the Forest Service. Neighboring cities, many who are closer to the springs, all have to pay to pump their water from an aquifer they’re worried they might be draining. Few of them appreciate the fact that Tombstone gets water from their mountains for free.
"Tombstone doesn’t have an awful lot of empathy outside of the boundaries of Tombstone -- and that’s 1,500 people," said Bob Strain, the former mayor of nearby Sierra Vista. "They’re grabbing other people’s water."
Tombstone just elected a new mayor, whose entire campaign platform was based on fixing the water situation faster. He’s going forward with the lawsuit against the feds to keep the spring water, but he’s also looking into drilling new wells for even more water. This is because, as Sosa says, in this part of the country, there’s only one thing that’s more important than the silver or gold that made Tombstone famous.
"Water is the most precious commodity in this state," Sosa said. "Water’s the most precious commodity in the desert, period."