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."
Meanwhile, word of the location had spread and thousands of Rainbow Family members began to descend on the area. The rapid increase in numbers made any enforcement of the water rights increasingly problematic.
On June 17, it appeared the Rainbows had agreed to hire tankers to truck in water. However, on June 21, when Peters went up to check the level of the lake, she found two bigger diversion pipes had been installed. The Rainbows told her that the Forest Service had said the city had cut a deal allowing use. There were then 3,000 people camping at the site.
Several days later, someone called "Sug" Peters at home and left a death threat.
"They said, 'Water Bitch, we're going to kill you,'" Peters says.
"We were all very aware that there would be bloodshed now if we tried to enforce this. None of the water owners were willing to sacrifice our local law enforcement or anybody else over this issue. Had someone acted assertively at the beginning, it could have been controlled."
The Town of Springerville, Peters and Baker wrote a letter to the Rainbows stating for the record that none of them had consented to give away the water. But they decided not to demand that law enforcement stop the water diversions.
The Apache County Sheriff's Office says it was prepared to protect the property--if someone had filed a formal complaint. Even though property owners had complained, they weren't willing to turn it into a police matter. The county also was authorized to request the National Guard if needed, a contingency that was discussed.
"We were prepared to do what we had to do to protect their rights and property there," says Jim Morris, spokesman for the Apache County Sheriff's Office. "While they're not happy about this, they aren't prepared to force us to take drastic action that might endanger the lives of either the Rainbows or law enforcement personnel."
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Peters says, "We made the decision not to request a complaint and the National Guard because we knew what would happen at that point, simply because we don't want the violence. After the threat that was made against me, it made it a much clearer issue to us.
"I never had any idea that this would evolve as it has, but I still would have defended my rights," Peters says. "I do not believe that anarchy should ever be allowed to rule in this country, when sheer numbers just go in and say we're going to disregard every law there is, and that's what's happening here."
For now, the sheriff's office and the state Department of Public Safety have increased patrols around the Peters' ranch where she and her husband run about 150 head of cattle. Her husband wants her to start carrying a gun, which she refuses to do.
Then she laughs and says, "After this is over, I don't want to see anybody for a long time. I'm gonna go hug my cows.