The Great Sucking Sound

Bart Sipriano's well dried up four days after Ozarka started pumpin massive amount of water nearby. Under the state's archaic "rule of capture," the East Texan has no right to complain.

"Because we rely significantly on groundwater, any change to the rule of capture could have some serious implications for the city,'' Day said.

Officials for the city, the Farm Bureau and the cattleraisers each say they believe the Legislature and not the Court should decide the fate of the rule. Not surprising, considering their powers of persuasion hold more sway with lawmakers than judges.

Each also says the best way to regulate groundwater use is through local groundwater conservation districts, which may be formed either by the Legislature or the TNRCC, and always require a confirmation vote of the people who live within its boundaries. The city of Houston's groundwater use is regulated by the Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District, which was formed about 20 years ago to prevent landowners from pumping water in ways that cause a neighbor's property to sink or flood. The boards of groundwater districts can restrict the amount of water a pumper may draw and specify how they must position their wells. There are 42 of them in Texas, almost all in the arid regions of the High Plains and West Texas. But Johnson says local groundwater districts have tended to shy away from exercising their full authority.

"In reality, underground water districts haven't done much," he says. When a newly formed district in South Texas -- designed to protect the Edwards Aquifer -- proposed requiring permits last summer, which likely would have resulted in restricted pumping for some users, some of those users sued the district. The case is hung up in court.

In spite of that, the Farm Bureau -- and the Legislature it has persuaded -- continues to hold to the theory that local groundwater districts are the best way to protect the resource. "In situations where people are alleging problems with the rule of capture," Pate says, "the rule itself becomes a motivation for the local people to create a groundwater district."

That may sound good in theory, but it didn't work for East Texans anxious about Ozarka's pumping operation. The locals' efforts to form a groundwater conservation district fell flat because of opposition by Ozarka.

The water bottler was fighting back against a group of residents who've loudly maligned the company ever since it came to town. Hoping to start its pumping operation in the fall of 1995, Ozarka voluntarily postponed its start-up for six months after the locals charged that it was going to pump the Carrizo aquifer dry. Ozarka formed a citizens' advisory committee in hopes of easing concerns, but the most outspoken residents boycotted it, dismissing it as public relations puffery.

When Ozarka finally started pumping in March 1996, the locals sought other means to force the company out of town. They approached state Representative Bob Glaze, a Democrat from a neighboring county, to sponsor a bill during the 1997 legislative session to form a groundwater conservation district. They figured if the district's board could be stacked against Ozarka, then it could adopt regulations to limit or even halt Ozarka's pumping. It didn't take long for Ozarka to figure that out, and the company approached elected officials with its concerns.

"In principle, Ozarka would favor the creation of a groundwater district if the intended purpose is to have a cooperative effort to conserve the water," says Lauren Cargill, an Austin-based public relations consultant for Ozarka. "But when the effort is formed to bankrupt our company, we're not going to support it. The effort was malicious and punitive in nature."

Legislative approval was all that was required to call an election to form a district, but Glaze told the locals who sought it that he also wanted elected officials in the area -- such as the Henderson County Commissioners Court and state Representative Clyde Alexander of Athens -- to go on record in support of the idea. They never did, and Glaze ultimately let the bill die.

The defeat of the effort is another example of politics winning out over people, says Dale Groom, an Ozarka neighbor who led the charge. He and his buddies gathered more than 700 signatures of residents who wanted the district. But local officials, Groom says, were no doubt swayed by Ozarka.

"The bill was just flying through the Legislature, then Ozarka got wind of it and started its public relations machine and -- Poof! -- all of a sudden everyone says we can't do that," he says sourly. "So let me make sure I understand this: The citizens say we want it, but if our county commissioners and state legislators say they don't, then we don't get it. Is that how it works?"

Three days a week, Bart Sipriano has to drive the 111-mile round trip to Palestine so his wife of 44 years, a diabetic, can undergo dialysis treatment. Her kidneys went out on her last August. Sipriano carries a beeper in his front shirt pocket, waiting for the page that will indicate that an organ donor has been found.

The other four days, Sipriano putters around his 44 acres, his ailing wife holed up in the house. Now retired after years of working manufacturing jobs, Sipriano has fresh, running water on his property again. But that is only because a benevolent community donated about $10,000 in cash and labor to drill a new 100-foot well. That well, 76 feet deeper than his old one, draws water from the Wilcox aquifer.

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