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.

Bart Sipriano sits on the hood of his run-down pickup truck parked outside his shack and takes in a slice of East Texas he's proud to call his very own.

There's a meadow, flowering weeds and tall grasses rippling in the breeze. There's an old barn, exposed to the elements, still scarred from the last tornado to hit these parts. And there are a few chickens, squawking and scratching about, and a few hogs, squeezed into metal cages stacked one on top of the other outside the barn.

It used to be that on hot days -- and there are plenty of those out here -- Sipriano could sit under some shade trees and cool down with a glass of pure, crisp water from his well. He reckoned it was some of the best-tasting water in the country, his prize for living at the end of a dead-end road deep in the rolling hills of East Texas, near Athens.

Home was just as he wanted it, a place where no one and nothing would disturb him, except maybe the coyote that occasionally prowled at night.

Then one day in 1996, a fierce predator moved in up the road -- a big, faceless corporate neighbor inspired to locate there not by the serenity of the land, but by the water that lies beneath it. Ozarka, the bottled water company headquartered in Irving, wanted to pump that pristine water, capture it, and sell it. And so it has under its familiar red label ever since then.

For nearly 20 years, Sipriano had relied on his well, burrowed some 100 years ago, to provide all the water he needed for drinking, cleaning, and cooking. But four days after Ozarka tapped into the same shallow aquifer, vacuuming tens of thousands of gallons of water each day, Sipriano's well went dry.

Ozarka officials insist there's no cause and effect. At the time, all Sipriano knew for certain was that his only connection to clean water was lost.

"It was like living out in the desert," says the mild-mannered 67-year-old, who punctuates nearly every sentence by spitting on the ground.

Sipriano eventually sued Ozarka, claiming the company's water-pumping operation had sapped his well. But, it turned out, he had no case. Texas law grants landowners, with very narrow exception, an absolute right to withdraw water from their land, no matter how much harm it causes their neighbors. The law exists because rural landowners in Texas have long rebelled against any restrictions to using their land the way they please.

That philosophy might have made sense when times were simpler, when conflicts between neighbors were handled man to man, Texan to Texan, for better or worse.

Back then, rural folks lived on farms once owned by their parents, and their parents before them. Sipriano's neighbor, however, is a division of The Perrier Group, whose parent is Nestle, the world's largest food company, headquartered in Switzerland.

Country boys like Sipriano are finding out that their stubborn resolve to protect the mystique of property rights has allowed corporate neighbors like Ozarka the same right -- to be left alone while it guzzles up all the water it can find.

As a consequence, a property owner like Sipriano finds himself out of water, out of luck.

"I'm no different. I've got my own property, and I want to be left alone on it," says white-haired Harold Fain, who joined Sipriano in suing Ozarka, alleging that the company's pumping drastically lowered the water level in his well. Fain and his wife live on the same land her father once worked to produce harvests of black-eyed peas.

"In my furthest dreams," Fain says, "I can't imagine doing something on my property that would hurt my neighbor. And if I could dream up something, I wouldn't do it."

The last thing these independent rural folks ever wanted was some fancy judge, politician, or bureaucrat telling them what to do with their land. But that's exactly what they're pleading for now.

Sipriano's lawsuit, which went nowhere at the trial and appeals court levels, has ended up at the Texas Supreme Court. The question facing state justices this week is what to do with 94-year-old case law that provides the basis for landowners' absolute rights to their water. That right is called the "rule of capture," and it essentially means that the water user with the biggest pump wins. All but six states have repudiated the rule of capture, which can be traced back to English common law, deeming it archaic and obsolete. But the state where bigger is better has refused to follow suit.

Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas are the holdouts still recognizing the rule of capture. All other states have deep-sixed it, some replacing it with a so-called "reasonable use" standard that says landowners may withdraw as much water as they want unless it causes unreasonable harm to a neighbor, such as lower water levels or reduced water pressure. Sipriano's lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to adopt the reasonable-use standard for Texas. Critics of the standard say it gives too much leeway to the courts and opens the door to frivolous lawsuits in which people with any water-related gripes can claim a neighbor's water use is causing them unreasonable harm.

The Texas Supreme Court case that established the rule of capture as state law dates to 1904, but closely parallels the Sipriano case. Back then, W.A. East, a landowner in northeast Texas, complained that his 20-foot well went dry after his neighbor, the Houston & Texas Central Railway, began extracting 25,000 gallons of water a day to power its steam engines. The court said the railway had a right to extract water from its land, ruling that the origin, movement, and course of groundwater was "so secret, occult and concealed" that any legal rules governing groundwater "would be involved in hopeless uncertainty."

Scientific advancements have since unshrouded the mystery of aquifers. Still, Texas to this day recognizes only three exceptions to the right of landowners to withdraw water from their land. The drawing of water must not be done purposely to injure a neighbor, be willfully wasted, or result in the flooding of a neighbor's land.

None of the three exceptions applies to Sipriano, whose claim of injury therefore has no remedy under current Texas law. In order for him to seek damages from Ozarka, he needs the Supreme Court either to abandon the rule of capture or to spell out more exceptions. Some experts predict the judges will lend a hand.

"The mere fact that the court is hearing this case raises the notion that it is ready to overrule the East decision to some extent," says Corwin Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and one of the state's foremost authorities on water law.

The court may act because the state Legislature has flat-out refused. Lawmakers congratulated themselves in 1997 for passing a comprehensive plan designed to help protect the state's water resources. Its urgency was reflected in its bill number: Senate Bill 1. Urgent though it may have been, the bill failed to address one of the greatest threats to a rural Texan's right to water -- the rule of capture. Lawmakers simply were afraid to mess with it.

"We did discuss the question of whether to modify the rule of capture through some sort of legislative change, but it was not done because we felt if that was taken up, it would have dominated the debate and therefore would have put the entire plan in jeopardy," says state Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown, a Lake Jackson Republican who sponsored the bill.

Leading up to Senate Bill 1 negotiations, the chairman of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which regulates state environmental policy, encouraged legislators to reconsider the rule of capture.

"It hinders the wise utilization of the resource," says TNRCC Chairman Barry McBee, who is quitting at the end of the year to run the office of newly elected Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. "I don't think it protects private property rights at all, and the Ozarka case is evidence of that. Farmers and ranchers believe they should have absolute rights to their water. Well, the rule of capture says they have that -- unless the guy next to them has a bigger pump. Their rights become quite ephemeral at that point."

Johnson, who was consulted during the Senate Bill 1 negotiations, says the property-right concept that rural landowners have fought so hard to retain over the years is illusory. "What it is, really, is the right to harm somebody else," he says.

Legislators, however, didn't submit to the logic of McBee or Johnson, choosing instead to acquiesce to the wishes of certain lobby groups that are more caught up in Texas legend and tradition. The Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas and Southwestern Cattleraisers Association, which represent farmers and ranchers who need massive amounts of water to keep their crops and animals alive, have successfully wielded their formidable power for years to oppose any legislative attempt to change the rule. In the case before the Supreme Court, the two groups are siding with Ozarka, the corporate intruder, instead of Sipriano, who has lived in rural East Texas all of his life.

Officials for both groups try desperately not to stumble over the ironies. Bart Wulff, a board member of the cattleraisers association, says that for as long as Texas has been Texas, farmers and ranchers have bought their land expecting to be able to drill down into it and use whatever water they can find. A change in the rule of capture is unfair to those who've bought the land under that assumption, he says.

"The obvious sympathetic position for us to take would be with those little folks out there who are being ruined when big operators like Ozarka come in and drain them dry," says Wulff, a Dallas lawyer who owns a ranch in the Hill Country. "But one bad example is not enough reason to have the court come in and abandon what has been an established rule of law for 100 years."

Ridge Pate, legal director of the Farm Bureau, says, "We're dealing with folks' property rights. When you take one away, where does it end?"

The city of Houston, which gets about 35 percent of its water supply from groundwater sources, also is siding with Ozarka. The city, which provides water to Houston and 19 surrounding communities serving about 2 million homes, operates about 200 wells, most of which are in Harris County. Assistant City Attorney Anne Day said the city expected to file a legal brief with the court to assert its position that the judges should not throw out the rule of capture.

"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.

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.

"Maybe it's time for the state to go on record saying if someone is transferring water out of the basin, and the capturing of that water is affecting adjacent property owners, then that someone can face criminal or civil penalties," he says.

McQueen has thought a lot about it. Sipriano had never even heard of the rule of capture before his well went dry. He now explains it this way: "The one who has the most money gets to do what he wants to do, I guess."

Harold Fain's internal alarm clock wakes him every morning at four a.m. on the dot.

The 60-year-old slips out of bed, trying hard not to wake his slumbering wife, tiptoes to the kitchen, and grabs a flashlight from a cupboard. He opens the sliding glass door, arousing his two dogs, Freggor and Ramey. The old dogs scramble to their feet and blaze a trail for Fain in the dark, leading him on a path to his wooden well house. Fain unlatches the door, shines the flashlight inside, ducks his head, and goes in.

He slides the concrete cap covering the well to one side, exposing the 37-foot-deep hole that bores down to the Carrizo aquifer. He grabs a measuring tape and lets a weight attached to the end fall down until it splashes water. Then he reads the measurement. Since Ozarka moved to town, Fain has made this his morning routine.

On his kitchen counter is a tablet of graph paper on which he logs the daily water level. It fluctuates with the weather, but Fain claims it dropped five feet a few days after Ozarka began pumping -- and that loss has remained constant.

The Fains' onetime black-eyed-pea farm now boasts a few cows and a satellite dish. The retired Southwestern Bell employee, disabled by throat cancer, has things besides farming on his mind. He wants to take his wife to Bossier City for a week at the casinos.

"I'd like to spend about $100 and try my luck with the slot machines, but I can't go on vacation because I'm afraid that I'll come back to no water," Fain says. "I'm afraid they'll pump me dry."

Ozarka officials say Fain has nothing to worry about. The company believes that scientific evidence can prove its pumping operation has not affected the wells of either Fain or Sipriano. The scientific merits of the case on either side have never been argued in court. The trial court ruled in Ozarka's favor without hearing technical evidence, because even if Sipriano and Fain could prove Ozarka affected their wells, the rule of capture held that they had no legal remedy.

Ozarka won on that basis, but the company may pay a heavy price for victory. If the appeal results in the Supreme Court overturning the rule of capture, thus granting Sipriano and the Fains a legal means to seek damages from Ozarka, the company will forever be known for having ended Texas property rights as the state has always known them. The hit the company would take is unjust, Ozarka officials say, because if the court rules that way, the case likely would be sent back for trial, where they're convinced they'll prevail on the strength of scientific evidence.

"The Supreme Court may change this 100-year-old law, even though we can show without a doubt that we haven't done anything wrong," says David Feckley, Texas natural resource manager for The Perrier Group and caretaker of Roher Spring. "Yeah, there's something ironic about that."

Feckley, a hydrogeologist, maintains that Sipriano's shallow well went dry because of the droughts in 1995 and 1996. He says dry weather probably also affected Fain's well, which is about 1.4 miles from the Ozarka boreholes. But one of Sipriano's two Palestine-based lawyers, Pam Rea, notes the coincidence that Sipriano's well, which had served him fine for almost 20 years, went dry four days after the pumping began and that the only time water returned was during a brief period one month later when the company temporarily shut down its operation.

Sipriano and the Fains would have their work cut out for them to prove Ozarka's operation is at fault. The Supreme Court, however, is hearing only legal arguments this week. A ruling will follow in the coming months.

Ozarka officials point to conclusions of the Texas Water Development Board, a state agency that analyzed the Ozarka pumping operation, to further its claim that the company is innocent.

In the winter of 1995, and again a couple of weeks after Sipriano's well went dry, agency officials visited the site, logging changes in water levels in several monitoring wells that Ozarka had scattered across the property.

Agency geologist David Thorkildsen says wells that were 600 to 700 feet away from the boreholes -- and, he emphasizes, at least 2,000 feet closer than Sipriano's well -- showed no appreciable signs of change while pumping was going on. "Hydrologically, you can't make any connection between what Ozarka is doing and what happened to the wells of those people," he concludes.

Rea, however, says Thorkildsen's research is tainted because it is based on monitoring wells and computer-sensor equipment installed and operated by Ozarka. "It's wrong to base conclusions on the company's data," she says.

Hers is just part of the mistrust, bordering on paranoia, that permeates the battle between the landowners and their corporate neighbor.

A slew of signs reading "Save Our Water. Get Out Ozarka!" have sprouted across the area, the work of Dale Groom's opposition group, which is called Rohr Spring Citizens. (The landowners can't even agree with Ozarka how to spell the name of the spring.) Groom, 55, an author of Texas gardening books, has the personality of someone who frequently calls radio talk shows to kvetch about government. On his scenic 90-acre spread, he draws water from the Wilcox aquifer, which is below the Carrizo. He therefore cannot say Ozarka is affecting his land.

But he does claim that the company tried to lease part of it once -- and that it went about its plan in a most deceptive way.

Here's how he tells it: In the late 1980s, a young man posing as a Southern Methodist University graduate student showed up on his doorstep and asked if he could explore Groom's land for a research paper he was writing on the flow of springs. Groom gave him run of his property. Several months later, the same young man showed up with an Ozarka executive, who asked if Groom would be willing to lease part of his property. Ozarka apparently wanted to build a truck turnaround and holding tanks there -- the same setup the company eventually built along the dirt road that leads to Sipriano's place. Groom told the two men to bug off, and he never heard from them again.

"And I'm supposed to trust these people?" he asks.
(Ozarka officials say they suspect the young man initially identified himself to Groom as an Ozarka employee, and that Groom may be intentionally distorting the facts to make the company look bad.)

Before Ozarka moved to Roher Spring, it pulled out of one in Nacogdoches. The spring water Ozarka was extracting there began showing high levels of a mineral that, when mixed with disinfecting ozone at the bottling plant, produced unsightly flakes in the water. The owners of the spring sued Ozarka, claiming the company ruined their spring by causing the infiltration of the mineral. Ozarka denied it was at fault, chalking it up to natural changes that sometimes can occur within an aquifer. Yet Ozarka settled the lawsuit. Under settlement terms, both sides agreed not to talk about the case. The silence, Groom figures, must mean the company has something to hide.

Another story of mutual mistrust stems from the time one of Sipriano's relatives found a lost notebook on the dirt road. It contained the appointments calendar of Steve Bendix, Ozarka's director of manufacturing and one of Perrier's top executives in Texas, along with some documents that looked official. Sipriano turned the notebook over to Rea, who submitted it to the court.

Ozarka officials wonder if the lawyer's motives were vindictive, perhaps hoping the documents contained proprietary information that a competitor might find useful. Rea, however, says her only motive was to provide the court and Ozarka something she might use -- but ultimately didn't -- as evidence in the case. The notebook contains a smattering of information about The Perrier Group's several brands of spring waters. Ozarka officials say that nothing in the notebook was proprietary, and that Bendix lost it after he put it on the hood of his car, got distracted, and drove off.

Gordon King, a particularly opinionated member of Groom's anti-Ozarka clan, thinks he's got the mystery of the notebook all figured out: "I think Ozarka planted it there to get us off track, because there was nothing in there that was of any use to us at all."

In Eustace, population 769 and the closest town to Ozarka's pumping operation, a short stack of pancakes costs $1.75 at the Town Square Cafe.

The restaurant borders the town square -- a wooden gazebo surrounded by grass, wrought-iron benches, and globe lampposts. Ozarka donated $2,850 to the city of Eustace to finish constructing the sidewalk along the square. The company has also donated two trucks to the volunteer fire department. The city draws its water from the Wilcox aquifer, but Ozarka still gives away crates of bottled water in town.

Several cases are stacked in the corner of Jolene Morgan's barber shop. She's the president of the Eustace Chamber of Commerce, which sells the bottles at 50 cents a pop during community events to raise money. To her, Ozarka has been a great neighbor.

"People say Ozarka is responsible for drying up a well," she says. "I don't know anything about that. All I know is that we didn't have $2,800 lying around to finish up our sidewalk."

Inside City Hall, Eustace police chief Jerry Mills gives a sarcastic no-comment when asked if Ozarka has been a good neighbor. "Until the laws change, they haven't violated any laws," he finally says.

From the town square, Morgan glares at one of Groom's "Save Our Water. Get Out Ozarka!" signs that hangs high on a tree. "I'd like to get a chain saw and take all those down," she says.

The sidewalk around the square was christened at the town's annual Pioneer Day celebration this year. One cement tile bears an etched imprint of the Ozarka logo. It almost didn't survive the party: Someone defaced it with a shoeprint. The tile was recast.

Groom laughs when he hears about it. That isn't his shoeprint, he says, but he wishes it was.

At Ozarka's immaculate bottling plant in Fort Worth, freshly blown plastic bottles whir through a labyrinth of electronically powered conveyors. Water from Roher Spring fills the bottles before they're whisked along to be packaged for sale. The synchronicity is perfect. This high-tech marvel is so very distant from Bart Sipriano.

Tanker trucks roll into the Fort Worth plant, empty their load from Roher Spring, then roll back out. They return to the middle of nowhere, down the dead-end dirt road to Sipriano's house, for more water.

Across the road, Sipriano hears the rumble of their engines, though he can't see the trucks.

"They done got me stirred up now," he says. It's as close as he ever gets to outrage. "We're going to go all the way with this.

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