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Shafter residents weigh options after questions over their access to water emerge

At the beginning of November, those living in the ghost town of Shafter found themselves without running water. It was quickly restored, but the outage is causing some to question if they can rely on the town’s source of water long term. 

By Mitch Borden

On a sunny morning in early November, some of the residents of Shafter wandered up to the community’s catholic church. People are introducing themselves, joking, and making small talk. It sounds more like a reunion rather than a meeting to talk about the ghost town losing water. 

The approximately 30 people living in the former mining town, currently receive their water for free from a local well owned by a private company. But a fire at the water well — housed at a nearby sliver mine — caused the community to temporarily lose its running water. The nearly week-long outage pushed some locals to re-think the ghost town’s water security and caused some to wonder if it’s time to find another water source, one they can have more control over.

“What will happen if in a year, two, five, ten if it changes ownership and then that new [owner] no longer wants to provide water?” asked Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara at the meeting that was called by the county.

Almost immediately it was clear there was no backup plan when it came to where Shafter would get its water if the mine ever stopped providing it. A representative with Rio Grande Mining Company, which oversees the mine and water well, did admit if the silver mine were sold, which it has been over the course of years, there’s no guarantee the town would get free water.

“In the event, it does change hands, there’s no security — nothing for sure,” said Tony Manriquez, Rio Grande Mining’s environmental specialist and water operator for Shafter.

On top of that, Manriquez also revealed the mine’s well is getting older and breaking down every few years. Drilling a new well is complicated because it could cost the mine around $200,000 to complete the project.

For Ambrose Austin, and others at the meeting,  these revelations were bad news.

Walking around his yard he points out a building, “We have a creek well, but that’s not actually functioning right now.”

Even though their water’s back on, since the meeting Austin and his wife Natalie have been assessing where they can get water and how they can store it.

“We have rain gutters too, Natalie is working on getting some rain barrels hooked up... so we have plans for the future to feel a little more secure about the water situation,” he said.

Austin is relatively new to the unincorporated community, he moved to the ghost town a year ago after finding a house for sale during the pandemic. It’s a beautiful piece of property with a view of nearby mountains as well as a pool that sits underneath Shafter’s vast sky.

“I think I was kind of swept up with the house,” he explained. “The landscape and the pool and I was like ‘okay, I’m gonna take it on faith that there’s going to be water there.”

Shafter’s access to water has always been a little tenuous. For years, locals relied on shallow wells or pumped water from the surface of a creek that runs through town. But in a drought-prone area like West Texas,  wells can go dry — especially shallow ones. That’s why in the late 90s, the mine started to let people hook up to its water lines for free.

But even though the mine is still providing free water to the town, it really sunk in for Austin and some of his neighbors at the November meeting how unreliable their access to water really may be.

And water security isn’t something that only Shafter needs to think about according to Trey Gerfers, it's something the entire region needs to put more thought into.

“I find it really really surprising how you know we’re out here in the desert and people just they figure I’m going to turn on my faucet and the water is going to come out.”

Gerfers is the head of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, which oversees groundwater use in the county. From his perspective, the situation in Shafter is an infrastructure problem rather than a resource problem. There’s clearly water near Shafter, the residents just need to decide if they want to build a system to access it in the future, which may be a challenge.

“I don’t know how you motivate people,” he said, “Getting mad doesn’t help, scolding doesn’t help. I try to embrace a positive outlook, positive approach. Talking about all the opportunities we have and that it’s not too late.”

Shafter has options and one that was proposed during the November meeting was establishing a water utility. That could eventually mean, residents would have to pay for their water, which for some isn’t a popular idea — especially for individuals on a fixed income.

There are other solutions Austin thinks could also work, like getting a formal agreement with the mine to provide water or just getting a storage tank for the whole town.

No matter what is decided on, Austin believes the community needs to keep having conversations about their options going forward. Right now, even though’s there’s a lot to figure out, he’s thankful the town has running water — right now anyway.

Austin said, “Well now at least for a few days we can feel relieved, but we’ve thought about whether this means we can stay here long term.”

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.