Shafter residents consider alternatives to water supply as potential mine sale looms

SHAFTER — On Tuesday, Shafter locals met at the church for the latest installment in a series of meetings about the future of their community’s water supply. Shafter residents are currently provided with water free of charge through the Shafter Mine — but as news broke about the mine potentially being sold, locals became concerned that they would lose access to water entirely. 

Former County Judge Cinderela Guevara held the first meeting between residents and county officials about the water supply back in August. Last summer, all the locals knew was that their neighbors who worked for the mine had been laid off — and that there were rumbles of a financial crisis at Aurcana Silver, the Canadian company that owns the Shafter Mine. In August, El Paso-based company Presidio Silver said a deal was in the works to purchase the mine from Aurcana; since then, the Tidewater and Big Bend Foundation has expressed interest in acquiring the mine. (Aurcana did not respond to a request for comment for this story by press time.)

The county is currently exploring grant-based options for funding water infrastructure projects in Shafter — though exactly what those projects will look like has yet to be decided. Gil Ybarbo of the Texas Rural Water Association attended Tuesday’s meeting to help the community strategize about their next steps. 

Shafter residents were worried about the potential of the electricity powering the water pump could be shut off, either because of Aurcana’s inability to pay the bill or through the process of selling and transferring the ownership of the mine. “The pump is still running by the grace of God,” said County Judge Joe Portillo.

Ybarbo made a map of local wells and potential water sources. There are private wells 2.5 and 5 miles away from town — but the 50 gallons a minute the nearest wells produce can’t compete with the current well, which pumps 200 gallons a minute.

The process of rehabilitating the existing well would come with complications. “It’s not as simple as buying the well or buying the water rights,” said Ybarbo, citing state regulations that dictate how wells can be refurbished or reconstructed. “But if you can bring it up to speed, that would be the thing to do.”

Tony Manriquez, who served as the well operator for 10 years, cautioned against trying to refurbish the existing well. He and his coworkers encountered chronic problems with the mine system — originally dug in 1979 — and had to replace key pieces every other year. “It’s a fading well,” he said. 

To have a better shot at qualifying for grant-based funding and state assistance and ensuring the longevity of the water supply beyond the mine, Ybarbo walked residents through the process of forming a water corporation — the unincorporated community of Redford was cited as a case study. Shafter residents would have to manage and administer their own water supply and pay utilities to foot the bill for its upkeep. 

Not all Shafter residents were excited about the idea of being responsible for water bills. “I was sort of enjoying the free water,” quipped longtime local Randall Cater.

Ybarbo said that the water corporation was likely the best path forward. “All good things must come to an end,” he said. 

Precinct 4 Commissioner David Beebe attended the meeting to stand in for Precinct 1 Commissioner Brenda Silva Bentley, who represents Shafter on the county level. He advised that the process of maintaining a water corporation wasn’t as simple as forming a committee — if the corporation couldn’t sustain itself, there wouldn’t be anyone to help keep it afloat.

Beebe said that difficulties in hiring contractors locally and keeping everyone involved in the corporation had to be the responsibility of the community — it couldn’t be turned over to the county in a crisis. “The county doesn’t have the manpower to run these systems,” he said. “We can help you get it started, we can help you when you get in trouble, but we can’t run it.” 

Shafter residents ultimately proposed having another meeting amongst themselves to designate officials for a potential water corporation. In the meantime, the mine hasn’t officially changed ownership — and there are many questions left unanswered. “We’ve been — for lack of a better word — ghosted,” said Portillo.