By Jonathon Shacat
BISBEE — Last week, Congressman Jeff Flake, who represents Arizona’s Sixth District and is a candidate for the U.S. Senate, introduced the Emergency Water Supply Restoration Act in an effort to spotlight the City of Tombstone’s current water dispute with the federal government.
H.R. 5791 would ensure that state and local authorities are able to promptly make reasonable and necessary repairs to restore water supplies and infrastructure during a declared state of emergency.
According to a press release from Flake’s office, the need for this legislation is illustrated by the current conflict to restore the primary water source for Tombstone, which was damaged by flooding in the wake of the June 2011 Monument Fire.
Flake, a Republican, represents the Sixth Congressional District of Arizona, which includes parts of Mesa and Chandler and all of Gilbert, Queen Creek and Apache Junction.
During an interview with the Herald/Review earlier this week, Flake said he hopes to move ahead with the legislation, but he also hopes he doesn’t need to wait for that to happen.
“Sometimes the introduction of legislation simply prompts the agencies to reconsider what they are doing and that is obviously what we want to happen here,” he said, adding, “We hope the federal agencies reconsider because there is no common sense in what they are doing.”
He said he hopes the Obama administration realizes it has overstepped badly and that it will simply reconsider, if it doesn’t want hearings on the subject and to see a bill moving through Congress that would be, in all likelihood, a popular bill.
“This issue is certainly known around here and increasingly it has been out on the airwaves on Fox and CNN, but not many of my colleagues in Washington have focused on it and we’ve got to gin up some support in D.C. for a change,” Flake added.
In August of last year, Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency for Tombstone and allocated funds for emergency repairs to the city’s aqueduct damaged by the fire. According to Flake, Tombstone officials stated the aqueduct has accounted for between 50 and 80 percent of the city’s water supply in recent years and is critical to the health, safety, and economy of Tombstone’s 1,500 residents.
The U.S. Forest Service severely delayed and, in many cases, blocked Tombstone’s efforts to repair the water source, stated Flake. The 1964 Wilderness Act prevents the agency from issuing permits for use of “motorized” or “mechanized” equipment because it would disturb the surrounding wilderness.
“State and local authorities ought to be free from federal obstructions when working to quickly restore water to taxpaying citizens during a state of emergency. This bill ensures that the federal government won’t come between a disaster-stricken town and its water,” he states in the press release.
Last week, a federal court judge in Tucson ruled against Tombstone in its lawsuit that sought to prevent the U.S. Forest Service from interfering with its ability to adequately access the water in the Coronado National Forest in the Huachuca Mountains.
U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata felt that Tombstone failed to provide sufficient information entitling it to unfettered access to the 25 water sources at issue, and that the city’s claims of a drastic water emergency related to public consumption and fire needs are overstated and speculative.
The judge also felt that the city’s water from the Huachuca Mountains has been substantially restored, and the city currently has access to sufficient and safe water between its wells and the Huachuca Mountain water.
In April of this year, Flake wrote a letter to Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to raise concerns about the limited progress of the repairs to the city’s water system and the delays stemming from the permitting process.
“Given the importance of the aqueduct to the city and its residents, I respectfully urge the Forest Service to work cooperatively with the City of Tombstone to ensure the necessary repairs are made expeditiously and in a cost effective manner,” he stated in the letter.
Leanne Marten, director of the agency’s Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers, responded to Flake’s letter on behalf of Tidwell in April. In the response, Marten stated they believe they are adhering to the standards that Flake would expect from the Forest Service.
“Employees of the Coronado National Forest have done a commendable job handling this situation within short timeframes and in difficult situations with the city, while maintaining consistency with agency rules and regulations,” the letter states.
Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director with Wilderness Watch, told the Herald/Review in an e-mail that Wilderness Watch believes that Rep.
Flake’s bill is an attack on wilderness, not just the Miller Peak Wilderness but wildernesses all across the West from which dozens, if not scores, of local communities rely for their water supplies.
“The damage to wilderness values that has already been done by the City of Tombstone at the two springs within the Miller Peak Wilderness should never have happened and didn’t need to happen,” he said.
“There may well be other options that could solve Tombstone’s water supply issue (such as drilling new wells) that would avoid further damage to our wildernesses. The Flake bill is a broad attack on wilderness that should never pass the Congress,” he added.
In an e-mail to the Herald/Review, Robin Silver, co-founder and board member of the Center for Biological Diversity, asked, “Why does not Flake help Tombstone secure funding to fix their wells?”