U.S. Water News Online
PHOENIX -- Rancher Fred Conway had been feuding with the
U.S. Forest Service over water it had taken from his property to
fight wildfires last year when he heard a helicopter near his stock
So he grabbed his shotgun, drove an all-terrain vehicle across his
pasture near Punkin Center and tried to wave the pilot away. But the
pilot dropped the 240-gallon rubber bucket anyway and Conway fired at
He now faces up to a year in jail and $7,000 in restitution if
convicted of one count of interfering with the performance of a
``It has a lot to do with water rights,'' Conway said.
The Forest Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to
comment on the case, but Don Van Driel, group leader for fire and
engineering for Tonto National Forest, said the dispute is unusual.
Forest Service district rangers usually try to assess availability
of private water before the fire season begins.
``We try really hard not to use somebody's water without their
approval,'' Van Driel said.
Especially in drought years, water is a precious commodity, but
it's unclear whether Conway has an inviolable right to the water in
his stock pond.
There aren't any black-and-white answers because questions
regarding water rights and the value of water are particular to the
facts surrounding a case, said Pat Schiffer, chief legal counsel to
the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
But other attorneys are more certain.
``It's his water,'' says Michael McNulty, a water attorney in
Tucson. ``The government has no more right to take it than to take
his dining room furniture.''
Conway says that is why he wants to be compensated.
The Forest Service didn't pay for water used last year, and Conway
said he told officials not to come back until he was paid.
He said he tried for months to get the Forest Service to
compensate him for the water it drew from his spring-fed pond in
2002, but in frustration he finally called the Tonto National Forest
headquarters and told a clerk the agency wasn't allowed to take any
But during the mop-up operations on the Picture fire, which
started June 17 and burned 12,500 acres northeast of Conway's ranch,
a helicopter pilot saw a flare-up and headed toward Conway's pond.
The pilot, Matt Conant, said he didn't notice Conway on the ground
until the second volley of shotgun fire.
``Personally, I kind of feel for the old guy,'' Conant said. ``I'm
not the guy trying to throw him in jail. But he still shouldn't be
shooting at aircraft.''
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