Water Warrior

updated 01/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

For years Terri Wolfe and her family spent summer days cooling off at a sparkling pond shaded by cypress trees in Crystal Springs, Fla. (pop. 1,175). Like many residents of the sleepy community 25 miles northeast of Tampa, they picnicked on the banks and swam in spring-fed waters that never dipped below 72 degrees. Because the spot was designated the Crystal Springs Recreational Preserve, Wolfe, a 48-year-old homemaker, assumed it was public property—and that it would be there when her daughter Vicki, 8, grew up and had children of her own.

Today the pond is surrounded by barbed wire and no-trespassing signs. It has been closed since 1996, after the preserve's owner, Robert M. Thomas, struck a deal with Perrier to market some of the springs' output as Zephyrhills Spring Water. Though the new plant in nearby Zephyrhills has brought some jobs to the area, Wolfe claims the operation is sucking her town dry—turning the springs' waters green with algae, killing fish, depleting wells and even cracking the foundations of nearby homes. "Those springs were stolen," says Wolfe. "And I'm going to get them back."

For the past six years Wolfe and the group she founded, Save Our Springs, have campaigned to do just that. She and her 400 local followers have organized protests and lobbied legislators. Wolfe acknowledges that the attempt to stop the pumping is an uphill struggle, but in 2001 a Florida judge ruled that Perrier could not triple the amount of water taken from Crystal Springs because of concern that the operation might affect Tampa's water supply. Recently she helped block the company from tapping springs in Wisconsin, and she is lending her expertise to activists in Brazil and Michigan. "We have a national problem on our hands," says Robert Glennon, an environmentalist who has written extensively about water resources. "No one would have a clue about the practices of many bottled-water companies if it weren't for Terri."

As bottled-water consumption soars—this year the industry made more than $1.5 billion—critics charge that manufacturers not only usurp what should be a public resource but also threaten the future of communities that rely on groundwater for drinking and agriculture. Bottlers, for their part, insist there's little scientific proof that they are depleting water supplies and that they take care to protect springs. Perrier, for example, points out that it takes only 301,000 gallons of water from Crystal Springs, which produces 38 million gallons a day. "I don't know that Terri Wolfe has done any scientific research," says Perrier spokeswoman Jane Lazgin. "We're in no way altering the ecosystem." The company says it limits public access to prevent contamination. "They've been good corporate citizens," says Zephyrhills mayor Cliff MacDuffie.

Wolfe replies by posting pictures of desiccated streams on her Web site and hauling bags of dead fish, which she claims are the result of the pumping, to water board meetings. "I want them gone—not just from my spring but every spring in the country," she says of the bottlers. "The poor people whose wells run dry can't afford their water."

Wolfe herself, the daughter of Henry Taylor, a machinist, and his wife, Ruby, grew up drinking from the tap in Indianapolis. After her parents divorced in 1963, Terri lived in Dallas with her mother, who held down several jobs to support her family. After high school she made her way to Florida, where she worked as a tile setter and a waitress before marrying mechanic Larry Wolfe, now 46, in September 1991. Three years later the couple welcomed Vicki, their only child, to their three-bedroom home on a dirt road near the springs. "We had a cozy life," she says.

But when Wolfe learned that Thomas had decided to close the springs to the public, she was furious. She set up a command center in her living room, led demonstrations and gathered letters from neighbors. She also sneaked onto Thomas's property to photograph low water levels, hoping to raise awareness that the company was pumping more than its permit allowed (Thomas says they simply made a mistake in calculating how much water could be taken and promptly corrected it).

Her actions have irritated many townsfolk, who say Perrier has brought prosperity and who continue to swim at other local springs. "I don't know why she continues this fight," says Thomas. "I own the water, land and everything, because my family has always owned it."

Wolfe says the springs belong to everyone. "It's not fair to take Mother Nature's resource and bottle it for profit," she says. "Where will the water come from when it's all gone?"

J.D. Heyman
Michael Cohen in Crystal Springs and Lori Rozsa in Miami

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