Showdown at the H2O Corral

Story highlights

Tombstone is in the Arizona desert but gets its water from the Huachuca Mountains

The city's 26-mile pipeline was damaged in last summer's Monument fire and landslides

Tombstone says the U.S. Forest Service had been slow to issue permits for repairs

The city is suing the federal government in what may be a landmark case

Tombstone, Arizona CNN  — 

There’s a popular saying in the American West: Whiskey’s for drinking, but water’s for fighting over. This dusty little city, made famous by the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, has a dilly of a water fight on its hands.

Tombstone, population 1,400, is suing the federal government – and it is likely to be a landmark legal battle.

Over the years, Tombstone has survived fires and floods and all manner of shiftless varmints. But now “the town too tough to die” worries it’s going to run dry.

The city sits in the desert but gets most of its water from springs in the Huachuca Mountains. Some of the springs are in a wilderness area protected by the U.S. Forest Service. From the Huachucas, the water runs 26 miles east to Tombstone through one of the longest gravity-fed water systems in the country.

Tombstone’s water line was damaged in last year’s massive Monument fire. The city says the feds are blocking emergency repairs that are critical to its survival.

In court papers, lawyers for the federal government say there’s no emergency. Instead, they contend, Tombstone is using the fire’s aftermath as an excuse to “upgrade and improve” its water system.

Kathleen Nelson, the acting ranger in charge of the Coronado National Forest, says the Forest Service has been letting Tombstone do some work, as long as it complies with the 1964 Wilderness Act.

In the wilderness, Tombstone can dig with shovels, not bulldozers. The new pipe can come up the mountain on horses, not in trucks.

Tombstone says that’s no way to respond to a crisis that imperils the lives and property of its residents.

The dispute is starting to ping on the nation’s political radar. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy research organization based in Phoenix, has taken on Tombstone’s legal representation.

The case is getting the attention of conservative bloggers, and Rush Limbaugh recently featured the water fight on his radio show, blaming everything on the Obama administration.

Tombstone is planning a June event that promises to propel the controversy into the national conversation: The Tombstone Shovel Brigade will be part protest, part work party.

The idea borrows from the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade near Elko, Nevada. Twelve years ago, several thousand people used chains, shovels and muscle to move a boulder and reopen a washed-out road the U.S. Forest Service had closed.