Fire burns Shafter pumphouse, leaving most residents without water

SHAFTER — A persistent water outage has struck the old mining town of Shafter this week, after a fire that blazed Saturday burned down a pump house owned by the Rio Grande Mining Company.

The fire at the pumphouse, located right along Highway 67, attracted a response from the Presidio Fire Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the county sheriff’s office. No individuals were harmed, but water to the community has been out since the incident.

Around 33 Presidio County residents make their home in Shafter, an unincorporated community on U.S. 67, south of Marfa and north of Presidio. While a few Shafter residents have their own wells, many in the town depend upon a water well on the property of the Rio Grande Mining Company (RGMC), rather than personal or government-run ones. Tony Manriquez, a Shafter resident and an environmental specialist with the RGMC, said that instead of being charged water bills for using water from the mining property, Shafter residents have been provided with free water services since 1997.

On Saturday, Manriquez said, a suspected electrical fire broke out. “The pumphouse, where all the electrical equipment for the well is, had a malfunction of some sort and burned down.” Not only was the pumphouse burned, the high voltage power line that runs through the property was damaged. 

“The primary power line that goes to the pumphouse is owned by the mining company,” County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke said Tuesday. “It’s a little unusual. AEP supplies power to them, but they do not own the distribution line that goes into the mining company.” The unusual ownership means it is up to RGMC to restore water service.

Manriquez said the company is now seeking repairmen to work on the power line as soon as possible. “They need a high voltage contractor to go out there,” Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara explained, in addition to a well service contractor to repair damage.

“Aurcana, which owns the Rio Grande Mining Company, has given full approval to do the repairs and get the water up and running. Money and approval isn’t the issue, what holds us back a few days is finding contractors to come out and do the work,” Manriquez said.

“We’ve got Arrowhead Drilling from Alpine that is ready to come down and get the electrical infrastructure going. What we’re having trouble with is finding a high voltage company,” he continued; most high voltage companies are in the Permian Basin and reluctant to make the long trek to Shafter. On Tuesday, the environmental specialist said, “It looks like we have one set up to come down and evaluate the situation on Thursday.” However, there isn’t yet a firm timeline of when the taps in Shafter will flow freely again.

On Tuesday morning, Judge Guevara went to Shafter to discuss the water outage with impacted residents, and about eight turned out to discuss the outage, their water needs and even the potential for residents to form a water board for the interests of Shafter residents. She also promised to bring cases of bottled water to the church in town for residents who need it.

Manriquez estimated that about three quarters of Shafter residents have storage tanks of 1500 or 2500 gallons that can get them through a couple weeks if the outage persists. He pointed out that this isn’t the first water outage the tiny town has faced, saying, “There’s been years where we had [outages] a couple times, maybe out for a week or two weeks.”

It is still undetermined when work will be completed to repair the system that supplies water to Shafter residents, and Mitschke said, “It may be a few days before they can get the powerline reconstructed down there. They may be looking at a few days of issues with water.”