Tombstone, Arizona should be a cautionary tale of what could possibly become Mesquite’s fate if environmental groups succeed in declaring a large swath of the Gold Butte desert region a National Conservation Area with Wilderness.
On May 16, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative-based organization, filed an emergency appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata’s decision that denies the small Arizona town from repairing its primary water source apparatus that lies within a federally-declared wilderness area.
After fire and floods severely damaged Tombstone’s water reservoir and water lines with huge boulders and up to 12 feet of mud, the U.S. Forest Service denied the town access to fix the water source with all but the most primitive tools.
According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, all areas designated as Wilderness must be limited to non-motorized, non-mechanized tools and travel. So workers trying to fix the reservoir and pipelines are limited to using shovels carried in on foot to make repairs.
The Virgin Valley Water District holds the water rights to 2,154 acre feet of water located in the Nickel Creek area within the current Gold Butte Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). The area, 350,000 acres, is being considered for adoption as a National Conservation Area with Wilderness.
According to Ken Rock, VVWD General Manager, that amount of water is enough to supply about 5,254 equivalent residential units (ERU) or approximately that many homes.
Rock adds that the water would best be accessed with a horizontal well rather than a vertical well. It would require the construction of “a fair-sized pipeline in some tough area, but it could be done – certainly for that much water. And, we could get substantial hydroelectric power from the descending water. The water won’t have an arsenic issue, we believe.”
While the Water District will always hold the Nickel Creek water rights even if the area is declared an NCA with Wilderness, no one refutes that, using Tombstone as an example, it may not matter.
According to the Goldwater Institute, there is no dispute about Tombstone’s water rights to 25 mountain springs and the rights to access roads and pipeline rights of way dating back more than a hundred years. However, the U.S. Forest Service now denies they exist and “refuses to allow Tombstone to restore more than three of its spring water catchments.”
Ann O’Neill, writes in an extensive article published on CNN.com, Showdown at the H2O Corral, “Tombstone says its pipeline was there first – before Arizona became a state, before there was a U.S. Forest Service, before the Coronado National Forest was established, and certainly long before the federal Wilderness Act.”
So while those who argue that declaring Gold Butte as an NCA with Wilderness will not harm the VVWD Nickel Creek water rights, Tombstone’s experience shows that accessing the water and bringing into the District’s distribution system is a totally different animal.
Nancy Hall, Executive Director of the Friends of Gold Butte environmental group, pointed out in an earlier interview with the Mesquite Citizen Journal that originally environmental groups wanted all 350,000 acres of Gold Butte area declared a wilderness. While that's still not off the table, Hall says the wilderness designation has been scaled back to approximately 120,000 acres.
While some of the wilderness designation may not directly absorb the physical location of the water at Nickel Creek, how and where the wilderness acreage is established could severely impede access to the water and the export pipelines necessary to bring it out of the mountains. Nickel Creek lies just to the north of the Virgin Peak Wilderness Study Area. The water is also within the boundaries of the requested National Conservation Area.
“If the federal government can deny Tombstone’s water rights, then nobody can rely on their water rights,” said attorney Nick Dranias in the Goldwater article. “Because water is the lifeblood of western states, the federal government is threatening jobs and economic growth across the West, not just
the lives and properties of Tombstone residents,” he continued in the article.
The Goldwater Institute also says, “Across the country, federal agencies are aggressively blocking state and local governments, ranchers, and ordinary citizens from rightfully using and enjoying federal lands. Public access roads and beaches are being closed.”
Indeed, local off-highway vehicles (OHV) and All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV) enthusiasts lament the closure to motorized vehicles of historical roads and trails near Lake Mead when the U.S. Park Service declared its jurisdictional area a wilderness. Other roads, 47 miles, were closed and access limited to hiking only when the Lime Canyon and Jumbo Springs area within the Gold Butte ACEC were declared wilderness.
Rock says that it's critically important to leave roads open in the Nickel Creek area, and other geographic locations, not just for access to the water sources but also as an economic engine for ATV enthusiasts who bring in tourism dollars.
To help remedy Tombstone’s situation, Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake introduced a new law, H.R. Bill 5791, on May 16 that would allow motorized and mechanized access in wilderness areas during emergencies “for the restoration of water sources, supplies, or infrastructure.”
There are two cautions to that for Mesquite’s future access to the Nickel Creek water. One, the Bill only grants the motorized, mechanized access during emergencies. Initially building access to the Nickel Creek water would not be an emergency. It’s doubtful Flake's law would make a difference if the VVWD wants to build a well, install pipelines, or create Rock’s hydroelectric power source.
Two, it’s questionable whether one law can be written and enforced that contradicts another law already in place.
Rock’s concern over how much water actually lies in Mesquite and Bunkerville’s current aquifer water source can affect the desire to access the extra water that could supply over 5,000 homes in the local area. He has stridently been pushing for a study of Basin 222 that determines whether there’s enough water to fulfill VVWD’s current allocation of 12,000 acre feet a year, especially when water users in Utah and Arizona come into the picture. If and when those studies are completed, and if and when more accurate water levels are determined, the Nickel Creek water rights could determine whether Mesquite can sustain much more growth in the future.
For those who desire controlled and limited growth, denying access and usage of the Nickel Creek water if it’s needed may be idyllic. But the question then becomes whether Mesquite wants to become an elitist community where only those with the best of economic resources can afford to live. Mesquite already flirted with that economic model when housing prices were skyrocketing in the mid-2000s, forcing many local residents and workers out of the housing market.
Neill’s CNN.com article also points out that some residents outside of Tombstone oppose the City in its battle with the U.S. Forest Service.
“Three dozen mountain residents have signed a petition opposing Tombstone's bid to bring in heavy equipment.
Ralph and Rosemary Snapp live on five acres in Carr Canyon. They say they have always gotten along with the workers from Tombstone, but they are in their 80s and don't want to live in a construction zone.
‘We're living in a place called Sky Islands," Rosemary Snapp said. "It's a fragile, unique environment. We're trying to preserve a corridor for the wildlife, to have a place where naturalists like to come to do research on moths and butterflies, snakes and all the flora and fauna here and to let people have a place to come to be back to nature.’
She continued, ‘The land has changed, but it has changed naturally. We want to push against any digging and further excavation causing erosion. We want to live with nature here.’ ”
The Virgin Valley Water District and its ratepayers may not need the Nickel Creek water until long after the fight over the Gold Butte NCA with Wilderness designation is resolved. But down the trail, they just may have another battle on their hands that rivals the one being played out in Tombstone, Arizona.