The latest chapter in Tombstone’s longstanding disagreement over water right-of-ways could be uplifting — literally.
Mayor Stephen Schmidt said he is considering a plan to lift a 132-year-old pipeline that currently sits 300 feet beneath the San Pedro River to a level above the river.
“It (the pipeline) sits there and corrodes under the river,” Schmidt said.
Tombstone’s water supply is dependent upon the pipeline that runs from the Huachuca Mountains through the San Pedro River to town. The part of the pipe that runs underneath the San Pedro has been deteriorating over the years, and is part of the reason the town put together a $1 million bond issue to pay for repairs.
The city can pump water from the San Pedro River as a back up plan, but Schmidt does not want to do that unless it is absolutely necessary.
“We’re not trying to upset anybody,” he said.
The only years that Tombstone has ever pumped water from the San Pedro River were from 1977 to 1981, after a fire in the Huachuca Mountains.
The pipeline has been in need of repairs for years, but the U.S. Forest Service, which now owns the land the pipeline runs through, will not allow the town to make any repairs with mechanical equipment, even though the town has had the legal right-of-way since 1880.
“It’s an issue of right-of-ways,” Schmidt said. “Those rights never expire. This city probably has the strongest water rights in the West.”
Back in 1880, the Huachuca Water Department, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, declared Tombstone the owner of the pipeline.
The town has only been able to do temporary repairs, like replacing certain areas of the pipe with plastic. However, the plastic cannot sustain the water pressure and blows up, Schmidt said.
The San Pedro is considered the only undammed, free-flowing river in America, said Schmidt. Part of the river is dammed in Mexico.
“Over the years there’s been a lot of deterioration on the pipe in the water. That’s why we’re putting together this bond,” Schmidt said.
Voters approved the $1 million bond issue last November. Schmidt said he is not sure when the city will see proceeds from that bond.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s co-founder Robin Silver wants to preserve the river as much as possible.
“The river is very fragile. It’s one of the world’s phenomenons,” Silver said.
Silver says that if the infrastructure of the pipes weren’t so leaky, then water wouldn’t be wasted. “We need the water in the river,” he said.
If Tombstone has to resort to pumping water out of the San Pedro reservoirs, then they would have to pump that water about nine miles uphill, which Schmidt is trying to avoid.
As of right now, getting the pipeline suspended over the river is just a possibility that the town is considering as a way to prevent further damage to that part of the pipeline, and no definite plans have been made.