Our Water Matters

Monitoring the health of our aquifers – Section House well

As part of our continuing series on monitoring wells and the people who own them, “Our Water Matters interviewed Molly Mandell and James Burke, Sal Si Puedes residents and proud owners of a well they are allowing their local groundwater district to monitor. 

It has been “a long and winding road to Marfa” for Mandell and Burke. Mandell grew up mostly in California and Burke is from Ohio. They met while studying abroad as UT-Austin students in Lyon, France, and when they returned to Austin, Marfa was the first place they visited as a couple. After marrying in Marfa in 2018, they moved to Copenhagen and then Mexico City. The couple work together in editorial and publishing consulting and are both writers and photographers. They had started looking for property along the river and “intended to sort of back and forth” between the Big Bend and Mexico City. “But,” according to Burke, “the pandemic changed everything.”

The couple ended up settling on 11 acres in the Sal Si Puedes area to the east of Marfa. “It sits in this perfect spot. Kind of near town, but kind of on its own,” Burke said. In addition to a one-of-a-kind barn made of railroad ties and a few other outbuildings, the property has a house with a very special history. According to the couple’s research, the house was built of redwood in California back in 1897 and was brought to Marfa around the turn of the 20th century, where it occupied the land that is now Travis Self Park. It served as the home of the section chief (and his family) who monitored a section of several miles of the railroad next to the house. The house was eventually moved to its current location, where Chile and Linda Ridley owned and added to it over the years until they sold it in 1996. The couple are working to reconstruct the full history of the house with the help of Lynn Loomis who sold it to them. Anyone with information about the house is encouraged to contact them at [email protected]

The property includes two water wells. The one near the house will continue to be used for domestic purposes and eventual restoration efforts, while the second well will be monitored by the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District.

When asked why they wanted their well to be monitored, Mandell responded, “When you live in a place like Marfa, as an outsider, you have to consider your impact and responsibility.” The couple feel that it’s “a great way to ensure that one of our most important resources is available not just for us, but for future generations.” They also believe that monitoring is increasingly important to our understanding of “how our resources are changing.” The couple were recently shocked when they visited Terlingua and found the Rio Grande bone dry. For Burke, it really brought home “the profound impact of our species on the natural world” and for Mandell it was especially moving because “the Rio Grande is a huge part of why we love this area.” Both of them feel strongly that monitoring is a good way to “understand the aquifer” and “back up decisions with data. So people can continue to come out to visit and live here.”

Mandell stated that monitoring “is not an intrusion on our lives” because they are not currently using the well and “it benefits the future and this community’s future. The benefits might take a while to be felt. But the data will have a profound impact on the long term so that we benefit over the long haul.” The couple are so pleased to have “finally landed here” that they want to continue “finding ways to give back” as a part of “figuring out what it really means to live here” to “learn to live in the Chihuahuan Desert.” For the couple, getting a handle on the health of our aquifers could serve as an “example of how to deal with the changes that are coming.” They believe that it’s often best to “start small to make big changes” and opening up their well for monitoring is one of the small steps they can take.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]