Five years after the fire and flood, most taps are still dry in Trout Canyon.
The tiny Spring Mountains subdivision 60 miles west of Las Vegas lost its spring-fed water system in the 2013 Carpenter 1 Fire, and some homeowners are growing impatient with a recovery effort that still hasn’t produced any tangible results.
“It’s painfully slow,” said Donna Lamm, a longtime Pahrump resident whose family has owned cabins in Trout Canyon since the 1980s. “We are all just mystified about how long this is taking and what is being required.”
Lamm is the current president of the Trout Canyon Land and Water Users Association, a group of property owners who banded together in 2013 to get the water system rebuilt.
She said the effort has received a lot of help — including thousands of dollars in grant money — from various government groups, but it has also faced a tangle of regulations and red tape.
First the group had to secure ownership of the water rights used to serve the community, which it finally did earlier this year. Now Lamm and company are working to gain control of three miles of pipeline right of way they will need for their replacement water system.
Meanwhile they are awaiting completion of archaeological and environmental studies and a preliminary engineering report they will need to submit to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land between the community and its water source high in a cave on the southern flank of Charleston Peak.
“We better have it in before the end of the year, or I’m going to jump off the mountain,” Lamm said with a laugh.
Some have given up
Trout Canyon is home to about 70 residential lots and about two dozen homes. Most are weekend retreats or seasonal residences, though Lamm said five or six cabins are occupied year-round.
For 50 years or so, the community received its water through a metal pipe made from welded World War II-era munitions canisters that ran down the canyon from Trout Spring. The unusual but effective system reliably delivered so much water that some residents put in lawns, fruit trees and ponds.
Then the Carpenter 1 Fire ruptured the aboveground pipe in several places, and a flash flood several weeks later washed the entire system away, including repairs finished hours earlier by the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
Since then, property owners have had to haul water up the mountain or borrow it from an existing well in the community.
One or two homeowners paid to have their own wells put in, but Lamm said it can cost about $70,000 to drill down through hundreds of feet of solid rock to the water table — a hit-or-miss proposition that also depends on securing the necessary water rights and finding a well drilling company willing to do the work.
A few Trout Canyon property owners, including a former member of the association board, have simply given up and sold their lots.
Lamm said she doesn’t know the details of those transactions, but she can’t imagine much of a market for a cabin without water.
Over the past five years, the trees and other landscaping around some homes have begun to wither and die, increasing the community’s already substantial fire risk.
Lamm said it’s so depressing up there, she hardly visits anymore. “I go up for meetings of the association and that’s pretty much it,” she said.
Can’t rebuild same old system
Complicating efforts to restore the water system are requirements for how it is designed and built, including a host of environmental restrictions and safe-drinking-water standards that could drive the cost of the project to more than $3 million.
“The ultimate goal is that we don’t put something back there that’s not going to be sustainable,” said Donn Christiansen, who manages Spring Mountains National Recreation Area for the Forest Service.
Lamm said the association has been promised about $1.3 million in low-interest loans from the state revolving fund, once the time comes to actually build a new system. “Don’t ask me where we’re going to get the rest of the money because we don’t know yet,” she said.
As for how soon she’d like to see the work begin, Lamm said, “Five years ago would have been nice.”
“We’re definitely in emergency crisis mode,” she said on a recent Thursday. “We’re surviving, but we don’t want anyone to forget that we’re extremely vulnerable up there without water. One lightning strike, and we’re all sunk.”
Two days after Lamm said those words, a wildfire sparked by lightning broke out in the hills near Trout Canyon. It scorched about 30 acres and burned to within about a mile and half of the nearest cabins before firefighters were able to contain it with water hauled in from somewhere else.