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.

Across the road from where Sipriano's property ends, behind a locked iron gate, two cylindrical tanks rise from the land like tombstones. They are painted a dark green, and together, can hold as much as 50,000 gallons of water. The tanks are about all of the Ozarka operation that's visible from the road. Sipriano watches tanker trucks roll in, drain water from the green tanks, and roll out toward Fort Worth, where the spring water is bottled and prepared for shipping.

He can't see what lies several hundred yards past the iron gate. Secured behind a barbed-wire fence, protected by a surveillance camera and a motion-detector alarm system, lies a benign-looking system of pipes and pumps. At maximum rates of 100 gallons a minute, each of two pumps sucks water from the Carrizo aquifer. On average, Ozarka pumps about 110,000 gallons of water a day from the Carrizo. Much of that is trucked to Fort Worth that same day.

Each borehole has been drilled about 80 feet deep, the same level that the Carrizo begins to feed the true treasure of Ozarka's operation, Roher Spring. The near-silent spring reveals itself, just barely, in an oasis-like valley down a slope from the pipes and pumps. Ozarka captures the water from the Carrizo just before it reaches Roher Spring and markets it as Ozarka Natural Spring Water, Texas' top-selling brand. A second source for Ozarka is Moffitt Spring in Walker County, near Huntsville. The water is bottled and packaged in Houston.

What is natural spring water to some is well water to others. Four days after Ozarka christened its pumping operation in March 1996, Sipriano awoke to something disturbing. He went to the bathroom, but when he started to wash his hands, no water came out of the faucet. And, he noticed, the commode had not filled back up. He walked outside, peered down the 24-foot well, and found no water.

He had always had at least seven or eight feet of water in it before, he says. "I'd been here 20 years, and I never had any problems until Ozarka came out here."

Ten members of his family were living on the property at the time, and for 10 days they had no running water whatsoever. Sipriano and his family spent that period burying hundreds of feet of pipe and electrical line so they could pump water from a pond on his property to use for bathing, washing clothes, and flushing the toilet. The pond water, however, was far from pristine, especially during the summer when, Sipriano says, it just plain stank. For more than a year, Sipriano had to drive four miles into town every other day to fill 35 plastic one-gallon jugs with fresh water from a friend's spigot so his family had something for drinking and cooking.

An Ozarka official stopped Sipriano on the road one day and offered him all the bottled water he needed, but he declined. "I didn't want to have anything to do with them," he says. "I'd rather drink water out of the pond than drink their water."

When Sipriano's well went dry, Dale Groom's group of local rabble-rousers, who'd welcomed Ozarka into town with an invitation to get the hell out, found the victim they needed to further their cause. Sipriano, an Apache Indian who grew up on a farm in nearby Mabank as one of 12 siblings, became something of a local celebrity.

Horace McQueen, who probably is the biggest celebrity in these parts, featured Sipriano's story on his Farm and Ranch News television show, which airs every weekday morning at 6.

The opening titles roll to the strains of a fiddle. On a recent show, McQueen was dressed in a gray suit and politely removed his cowboy hat after the program started. In a deep monotone, he read a detailed weather forecast for East Texas before cutting away to a commercial promoting a feed store's hay sale. Reading papers through his wire-rimmed glasses, McQueen relayed the market prices for cows and bulls sold that week in East Texas.

East Texans adore McQueen, so when he asked them to come to the aid of Bart Sipriano, they came through. (Ozarka even donated $500 to the charity drive. "We didn't get a thank-you note, but the check was cashed," says Cargill, the company spokeswoman.)

McQueen, who owns a 300-acre ranch, is sympathetic toward the Ozarka haters even though he, too, is one of those Texas country boys who doesn't want to be told what to do on his land. Like many of his rural friends, he's struggling to find the balance between what he knows is sound logic and what is Texas tradition.

As he sees it, the rule of capture shouldn't give people the right to harm their neighbors. He considers the obligation to a neighbor both moral and ethical, though he's torn over how far he wants the court to go in making that obligation a matter of law.

He says the Ozarka case is a special one, because unlike farmers who draw water for irrigation, which is returned to the soil and helps replenish the aquifer, Ozarka is harvesting it for removal. Those types of water uses should have greater restrictions placed upon them, McQueen says.

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