Fresh Ideas: Water in the desert

Two floods have traversed our front yard in the 15 years we’ve lived in American Flat, on the Virginia Range’s south slope. Here, deeply eroded canyons finger out into foothills, and water eventually reaches the Carson River.

Our house occupies an earthen rise on the floor of our canyon, a steep, deep cut that flattens out into our island. The 1870s Baltimore Mine tunneled into the west bank’s hillside, dumped its fill into the ravine, making a flat area around the tunnel’s mouth. A spring seeps up from the collapsed tunnel. The south edge of our lot is the abrupt faces of the fill, flowing sharply down onto the Flat.

The cabin was originally one room, a kitchen was added, then an upstairs room into the west bank. A two-story barn, moved here by a former resident, was placed with one narrow wall abutting the ravine channel’s inner edge as it circled our yard on the east.

Fifteen years ago, the barn’s north wall had rotted-out floor joists, mud sills, and flooring, from a long-ago flood forced to swarm around the building. We did repair the damage early on.

Our ravine collects road runoff and drainage from narrow, steep valleys uphill, culverts it under the V&T tracks and the access road, into our area. The spring’s runoff joins the main channel and the water then plunges 50 feet down the fill faces, onto the Flat.

Our son, living here before us, excavated a small room out of the hillside beneath the upstairs bedroom, and piled the waste into a berm extending south from the barn, thereby protecting the yard, ending where the garden path crosses the channel bed.

The Flat also hosts two noisily growing leach heaps and support buildings, evidence of the Comstock’s current active mining project. It’s all downhill and downwind from our home, but we’re moving away in August, to Silver City. Too much disruption.

The first flood, 10 years ago, started when a wet, mid-spring snowfall melted in the next day’s heavy, warm rain. A trickle puddled in the garden pathway, then water started pulsing and surging, and the ravine became a roaring cataract, snaking muddy runnels down the garden path, into the driveway, and assaulting the barn’s north wall. We stood on the berm, rubber-booted, raking out boulders tumbling by, so water wouldn’t back up, erode away the berm, or flood the repaired barn. The frightening show of water’s power, leaving a foot of debris in the garden, made us build a barrier at the vulnerable barn corner, and allowed our grandson to practice shoveling mud.

Before the second flood, the miners had built a big ditch to capture runoff uphill of the leach heaps. They obliterated our garden area, moved the access road, and lined it with tall berms. Inlets in the uphill berm would let road drainage into the ditch, but they are clogged with rocks and dirt, and in the recent monsoon rains the road was a mud wallow.

That ditch now borders the east wall of our ravine, its huge side taming the second flood, as an all-night rainstorm becomes even heavier the next day. Water was leaping, foaming down our channel, but never entered the yard, joining the big ditch well downhill from us.

If the miners had owned this place, it’s logical they’d have extended the ditch and captured our gully’s runoff farther uphill. More practical, no doubt. It didn’t happen, though, and instead I’m relishing my last few weeks before giving up this lovely little paradise.

Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.


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