Locals duel with feds in Wild West city of Tombstone

Historic Tombstone, Ariz.
Historic Tombstone, Ariz.

(CBS News) A year ago this week, the devastating Monument Fire burned tens of thousands of acres in southeastern Arizona.

Now, that disaster has led to a water war.

One of America's legendary Wild West towns, Tombstone, Ariz., is suing the federal government in what could become a landmark case.

For 130 years, Tombstone has been known as the town "too tough to die."

But some say it might, if this fight doesn't go its way.

Arizona's famed Huachuca Mountains are stunning. They are also scorched. The blaze that ripped through the Coronado Forest last June left thousands of trees blackened and bare, and defenseless against historic floods a month later.

Tombstone Public Works Manager Kevin Rudd says boulders and sand "got scoured out of canyons and got deposited at the base."

The problem? Tombstone, the former home of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (and still the site of daily gunfight re-enactments for tourists), has relied on water from the Huachucas since 1881, and its main, 26-mile pipeline, which brought Tombstone water from the mountains, was badly damaged by the fire.

Tombstone now has less than a quarter of the water coming from mountain springs that it did a year ago, Rudd says.

City Manager George Barnes says that puts Tombstone at imminent risk.

A worst-case scenario, he says, would be a "fire in the historic district."

If that were to happen, insufficient water could mean Tombstone would be gone, Barnes says. It's "burned twice before," he notes.

To fix the pipeline, the city says it needs to bring in more heavy machinery, which the U.S. Forest Service has balked at, citing the Wilderness Act because, in part, that might disturb the Mexican spotted owl.

Tombstone sued in federal court for full access, pointing out it's used the pipeline since long before the Wilderness Act - since even before Arizona was a state.

But Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch says, "It isn't just the spotted owl that we're concerned about."

He says he needs to balance the needs of the land, alongside the needs of the city. And, he asserts, Tombstone is asking for too much.

"All the pipes, all the water systems that existed prior to the fires and floods have been replaced or repaired and are providing water to the city," Upchurch contends.

When told the federal government says Tombstone hasn't provided specifics on what it wants to do, and that the government says Tombstone wants to upgrade the system as opposed to just fixing it, Rudd replied, "Nothing could be farther from (the truth). ... The only thing that we want (is) to re-establish what was here before, and essentially what was here before is gone."

The fundamental disagreement over who should have control - local or federal authorities - has reminded many of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and '80s, when disputes over environmental policy famously flared up.

It's also pulled in a host of partisan outsiders, including the conservative Goldwater Institute, which is paying all of Tombstone's legal bills.

Barnes says, "There is at least a theory in the western United States that there's some sort of a plan afoot to essentially pull people out of the federal land."

Asked if he feels the federal government's come to take area land, Barnes responded, "Well, they've done it."

The Forest Service won't comment about land ownership issues while the case is in court.

For now, absent bulldozers and backhoes, Tombstone has brought in shovel brigades to work by hand.

"We need to prove that people that this is an emergency," Rudd says. "This is water that Tombstone's had for 131 years. And it's essential to our survival."

To see Jeff Glor's report, click on the video in the player above.