The Dark Side of the Rainbow

"Peace loving" clan turns to water theft and threats as the Gathering grows

In Arizona, stealing someone's water is a crime second only to horse thievery. But the people attending the Rainbow Gathering in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest are illegally diverting hundreds of thousands of gallons of the privately owned resource.

Property owners and federal officials have opted not to get into a water war with the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a leaderless aggregation described as the largest non-organization in the world. Thousands of family members are now encamped at Carnero Lake, which is on Forest Service land near the town of Springerville. Alcohol and drugs are in heavy use in some parts of the camp, and some campers say they have weapons.

By not enforcing the water rights of the two local families and the Town of Springerville, officials have avoided a confrontation.

Maryhelen Peters is a 53-year-old retired kindergarten teacher whose ranching family claim to Carnero Spring and the lake it flows into goes back to territorial days. Nicknamed "Sug" (pronounced "Shug," as in Sugar), she has been dubbed the "Water Bitch" by some attending the Gathering. For attempting to enforce her water rights, she says, she's received death threats.

And she apparently has good cause to take them seriously. On Saturday, authorities with the "Rainbow Incident Management Team" responded to a report of shots fired and arrested three people for possession of marijuana and cocaine. The lawmen also seized three handguns, three rifles, two shotguns and about 500 rounds of ammunition from the three.

Peters and her sister, Sylvia Baker, descendants of the Butler clan that has ranched in the Round Valley area since last century, own half the water rights to Carnero Lake. The Town of Springerville owns the other half.

The Rainbow Family announced in mid-June that Carnero Lake would be the site of its annual Gathering, culminating on July 4 with as many as 25,000 people praying for world peace. Neither Peters, Baker nor Springerville gave the gathering permission to appropriate water from the spring or lake. Nonetheless, the Gathering built a sophisticated temporary diversion system to supply its thirsty needs as Apache County's newest and largest city.

For their part, the Rainbows contend that their scouts were assured by Forest Service personnel that accessing the lake's water would not be a problem. The Forest Service denies that claim.

Still, Peters says her family was told by the local Chamber of Commerce as far back as April that the Rainbows were probably going to Carnero Lake. She called Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Supervisor John Bidell and told him she wanted to protect the water source.

Peters, accompanied by a forest ranger, posted the area with signs that read, "Privately owned water. Public use or diversion prohibited."

But when she drove back to the lake June 15, accompanied by Forest Service personnel and Apache County deputies, the signs had been torn down and a diversion pipe had been put into the spring. About 200 people were already camping at the site then. Peters pulled the pipe out herself.

"I visited with people around the spring and they were very pleasant, they were not threatening," Peters says. "I told them that the water could not be used, and they invited me down to their council. They said, 'Gee, we didn't know, the Forest Service told us to come here.' They told me, 'If we can't have the water, we'll move and we're in a position to move because there's only several hundred of us here.'"

But Peters got a much different reception at "A Camp," a section of the Gathering so named because of the prevalence of alcohol. It's the hardest partying enclave of the Gatherings, and, although the Rainbows don't ban alcohol, they try to segregate its use to "A Camp." The camp is an admitted embarrassment to the generally pacifistic and spiritually oriented Rainbows and the subject of considerable debate on their Internet news group, alt.gathering.rainbow.

Peters says that by the time she visited "A Camp," which was set up below the lake, on June 15, "word had already spread and they were shouting, 'Water Bitch,' 'You can't do this' and 'We're gonna sue you.'"

Peters also drove to an overflow ditch where she found more diversion pipes. Informed of the water's ownership, she says, the Rainbows responded by claiming that God owns it.

"We had another discussion then, and they agreed to move," Peters says. "When we were driving out at 'A Camp,' our pickup was surrounded and they were shouting, 'We're gonna kill you.' The law enforcement officers had to get out and clear the road so we could drive out of this 'peace loving' camp."

Peters thought the situation had been resolved. The Rainbows, however, say they were assured by the Forest Service that the water owners would compromise and allow access.

Peters recalls, "John Bidell called me at 9:30 that night [June 15] and he said, 'I told them not to move until we negotiate something,' for which I was livid, because there were no negotiations, we had made our stand clear."

Bidell claims, "We haven't been involved in the water rights issue whatsoever. It's always been a private matter between the holders of the rights and the Gathering. It's a private rights issue, its not a federal resource issue."

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