￼Drought A dried-out arroyo paves the riverbanks of the rio Grande as it passes through ruidoso, TX. (Alex Webb / Magnum Photos)
My article on the most important document in the recent and turbulent history of water in Texas opened in a leisurely fashion. “The 295-page draft of the 2012 [state water] plan, published last week in the midst of the worst-ever single-year drought Texas has ever experienced, is a sobering read,” I wrote in The Texas Tribune, in 2011.
Last week? Seriously?
The water plan would soon become one of the most-scrutinized documents in Texas. It dramatically declared that the state “does not and will not have enough water” in times of serious drought. Its contents—and what to do about them—would be passionately debated by state lawmakers, the Tea Party, and virtually every major interest group. So dire were the plan’s projections that things culminated in a vote last November in which Texans, a normally tightfisted bunch, approved spending $2 billion to create two new water-infrastructure funds.
I waited four days after the water-plan press release arrived to write a story. That’s because I was busy. It was also because I could. To the best of my recollection, despite the lag, I was first to the story. No one in the media, including myself, was really paying attention.
As a general matter, far too few journalists around the country pay attention to water. Whereas major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal throw multiple reporters at energy, the water beat doesn’t really exist, except at a handful of publications, and often as a forlorn subset of environmental or government coverage. It’s strange.
Water is arguably more fundamental to life than energy. It’s just as hotly fought over (as the saying goes, “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting”). There’s Texas vs. Oklahoma, Florida vs. Georgia, Montana vs. Wyoming, and California vs. California, to name just a few water disputes. These battles, in courtrooms and polling places and city halls, are sure to intensify as the full fury of climate change arrives. It’s a rich, colorful subject that deserves far more attention from both journalists and the public than it is getting.
I noticed this neglect of water during the six years I have covered energy and environment issues. For a while, I was guilty, too. When I reported for The New York Times’ now-defunct Green Inc blog in 2008-2009, I could have written about practically anything that fell under the broad rubric of “green.” But mostly I focused on energy, specifically renewable energy. Natural gas prices were soaring at the time, so renewables were seen as a cheap and benevolent solution. Wind and solar and energy-efficiency seemed new and exciting. Water was mostly an afterthought, as it is for many East Coasters who have little firsthand experience of drought.
The Times laid me off at the end of 2009, and soon I got a job covering the same energy-and-environment beat at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news start-up in Austin. At first, I focused my coverage again on energy. It was what I knew, and I felt smart when I was able to converse with sources in the incomprehensible lingo of the power grid. But by spring 2011, I noticed that the lawn at my house in Austin had started going brown. Evidently there was a drought. That was annoying because I had to figure out how to turn on my sprinkler system. (I was renting the house, and maintaining the landscaping unfortunately was part of the contract).
The rains never came; my lawn grew crisper. Two thousand eleven turned out to be the driest year in Texas history, and also one of the hottest. Lawns were the least of the casualties. Farmers and wildlife, even building foundations, experienced more serious problems. So I began churning out articles about water and drought. My colleagues teased me about showing up to our weekly meeting with basically the same topic: The Drought and X. Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants! Drought and hunting! Drought and the military! It was a paradise of new material.
Local outlets covered some of these stories. In fact, I got a lot of my ideas from reading small-town papers and realizing that the problems in one town were often mirrored in the others. If Midland’s football fields were getting spotted and brown, other athletic fields across West Texas were bound to be burning up as well, creating safety and aesthetic concerns.