Water woes

Regional papers turn out series on sea level, drought

Exposés about the changing climate in the polar north are great, and all the more important in light of reports that Arctic sea ice hit a record low this week. But there’s nothing like an investigation of the changes taking place in our own backyards.

Two newspapers produced excellent series in August that scrutinized climate crises related to having too little water, and too much, in their respective regions. The Kansas City Star took on the toll of the severe drought afflicting the Great Plains, while The News Journal in Wilmington, DE, examined impacts of sea-level rise in the Mid-Atlantic. The series share many admirable characteristics. In fact, both opened with the same characterization of a creeping but inexorable dilemma.

Where the Star described lake and stream levels dropping “week by week and foot by foot,” the New Journal told of the ocean pushing in “inch by inch” and year by year. Both reports placed the phenomena clearly within the context of man-made climate change, describing how global warming has accelerated sea-level rise and created the conditions that make drought more likely. Appropriately, though, the series didn’t dwell too long on abstract science.

What made the two them stand out was the focus on local impacts and people caught in the “crosshairs” (yes, both used that word). For drought and deluge, the concerns were the same. As the Star put it: “What can anyone do about this? How should we adjust? When will it end?”

To get answers, the deeply reported articles in both series relied on interviews with dozens of characters spread out across wide swathes of land. The Star’s Rick Montgomery went on a 3,200 mile road trip around Kansas, dipping into Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri along the way. He found farmers worrying about poor yields, ranchers selling off parched cattle, boaters bemoaning beached craft, native grasses struggling to make it through an unusually dry season, and local newspapers covering the drought conditions in every town. While Montgomery chronicled the misfortunes in a set of diary-style posts, his colleague, Jill Toyoshiba, documented them in a series of photos and videos.

Despite all of that, however, the Star’s lead article, by Eric Adler and Karen Dillon, was surprisingly upbeat. According the piece, which ran August 16:

Lakes and streams and ponds, as bad as they look, are not as stressed as they might appear and, indeed, are better now than they were last week when the volume in many lakes and ponds was at record lows. Cooler weather, which slows evaporation and keeps plants from drinking water out of lakes and streams, has helped greatly, as have a few small recent rains.

Most sources gave Adler and Dillon sanguine quotes about an ample water supply, drought-induced die-offs of invasive plants, and even lower lake volumes helping to concentrate fish for easier catching.

Things weren’t as sunny in Philadelphia—or at least south of Philly, along the Delmarva Peninsula. The News Journal’s series about sea-level rise along the coasts of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey lacked the uplifting comments found in the Star. Reporters Jeff Montgomery and Molly Murray canvassed more than a half dozen beach communities with help from journalists at four other Gannett newspapers in the area and everywhere, they found people struggling with tough decisions. As the lead article put it:

The treasured lifestyle of residents along the coasts of the Mid-Atlantic could significantly change by the time this year’s high school graduates retire, scientists say.

The larger issue for taxpayers is where to spend money and energy attempting to hold back the ocean—and where to retreat and allow nature to take its course.

Most of the 19 articles in the series are devoted the particular dilemmas facing each community. Through interviews with local environmental officials, seaside managers, and property owners, Montgomery and Murray fleshed out the short- and long-term options that have been tried and considered, including beach replenishment, building seawalls, raising homes and evacuation routes, government compensation programs, and simply letting Mother Nature take over.

The characters they encountered were both obstinate and accommodating, making the series a rich read, and interspersed between the tales of public debate are interesting stories about the plight of native birds, bio-engineering saltwater-tolerant crops, and the science of storm surges. There is a series of well-done videos and a nice interactive map and climate-change chart by the paper’s graphics man, Dan Garrow.

I’ve written about the value of similar locally focused, multi-part climate series before, and the contributions from The News Journal and The Kansas City Star are top-notch examples of how to do them right. Based on dozens of interviews with stakeholders from many different corners of the public, they highlight the difficult challenges and choices facing communities susceptible to water problems—whether that means too little or too much. And hopefully, they also help people work through the compromises and trade offs that need to be made to adapt to regional climate changes across the country.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.