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Friday, August 11, 2006

Red Oak Spouts Water in Peak Drought

Lucille Pope's red oak tree has baffled tree experts, water specialists and nursery professionals.

The knotted, towering tree, more than 100 years old, has become the root of scrutiny in her East Side neighborhood. The tree has gurgled water from its trunk for the past three months.

Pope, 65, has sought answers from several specialists, calling experts from the Texas Forest Service, the Edwards Aquifer Authority and nurseries for an explanation.

They've combed her backyard, probing the gnarled tree that leans away from a parked white 1980s Cadillac.

After snapping pictures, doing taste tests and conducting preliminary studies, they're still working to give her a definitive answer.

Photos by Tom Reel/Express-News

Lucille Pope drinks the water that is mysteriously leaking out of a tree in her backyard on the East Side.

Lloyd Pope catches the water springing from a tree in his backyard on the East Side.

"I got a mystery tree," Pope said. "What kind of mystery do I have where water comes out of a tree?"

The odd occurrence started in early April when her son, Lloyd Pope, noticed bark smeared with sap when he went to fill his the water trough of his stepson's dog Neno. After moving the Rottweiler's tray, he saw a wide stain that ran from the root up toward the branches, with fluid dripping to the ground from above.

Days later, he saw water streaming onto the ground from the other side, and he showed his mother the sight.

Lloyd Pope, 47, said the water was cool, like it came from a faucet. The only damp spot around the tree trunk is where the water lands.

The peculiar incident has the Popes wondering if the water has properties not found on tap.

Pope said her insurance agent dabbed drops on a spider bite that went away after the application on the welt. Pope said she's soaked her sore ankles in water from the tree and the pain has gone away.

Now she wonders, is it a tree that heals or water that blesses?

Her son doesn't believe the cause of the streaming water is anything holy or religious.

"I ain't with that superstitious stuff," Lloyd Pope said, sitting on the hood of the Cadillac, catching water spurting out of the tree in a plastic gallon jug. "There's no crying Mary here."

After hearing of the leaking tree, two water experts stopped by Wednesday afternoon to study the strange sight.

George Rice, a hydrologist on the board of the authority, and Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, walked around the tree, touching the damp surface.

"I've never seen anything like this before," Rice said. "If you wanted to dream something up I'd say that somehow water pressure underneath is forced through some kind of channel in the tree. But that's still very unlikely."

Rice watched the water gurgling about 2 feet up from the roots, estimating the flow at a 10th or 20th of a gallon every minute.

Lloyd Pope offered a blue plastic cup of the cool water to Rice and several bystanders. After a sip, Rice said it tasted like it could have had a trace of saline, almost like something that could have gone through natural dissolving salts.

Rice took a quarter of a plastic bottle of water from the tree, analyzing it later with a quick examination kit that measured water conductivity.

"From a crude, free test I can't tell the difference," Rice said of the water he compared to Edwards Aquifer water. "It's 600 micromhos, the same as what comes out of my tap, maybe a little higher."

Mark Peterson, regional community forester from the Texas Forest Service, paid a courtesy call three weeks ago to help Pope figure out a logical explanation to the phenomenon. He hasn't done any extensive research but still is trying to identify the enigma. He's talked to consultation services without any results

He said he believes it could be a spring, adding that that would be rare with the drought conditions this summer.

Peterson plans to ask colleagues around the country via link services for ideas about the tree.

"If it is a burst pipe their monthly bill would be enormous," Peterson said. "It would definitely be reflected in their bill."

Pope said she doesn't think the cause is a broken water pipe. She said her water bill is normal and hasn't fluctuated from the monthly average.

The only fluctuation she's seen she said is in the morning when the water flow is more forceful.

Roland Ruiz, spokesman for the authority, said that early in the morning he would suspect that the aquifer level would be up.

"With a high demand the level would be down," Ruiz said. "As the demand dropped, theoretically it would go up."

Thursday afternoon Ruiz said a science team member researched the elevation of the area and said that it's unlikely that the water from the tree is from aquifer springflow.

The family members said they plan to call the San Antonio Water System for an assessment.

After Rice and Peace left with their sample of water, Lloyd Pope continued to sit on the hood of the Cadillac, pressing the mouth of the nearly filled jug to the spout of water, just as he does every other day. Then he put the collected water, which he said is better than faucet water, in the icebox.

His mother cupped her hands to the tree, drinking the pooled water spilling over her fingers.

She's still waiting to find out if the source of the mysterious water flow is an artesian spring, a broken water pipe or an abandoned well.

Or possibly something else.

"I just want to know if it is a healing tree or blessed water," she said. "That's God's water. Nobody knows but God."
vtdavis@express-news.net

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