American media may cluster in the east, but the west is still the land of pioneers, even in the domains of multimedia and long-form science journalism.

Two young trailblazers—Quest, a multimedia science and environment series created in 2007 by KQED, a public radio and TV station serving northern California, and Pacific Standard, a research-oriented, bimonthly magazine launched as Miller-McCune in 2008 and headquartered in southern California—deserve a special mention for their recent work.

Let’s start with Quest and the unique contribution it made to a long, ongoing story about one the California’s most intractable environmental concerns. On May 14, state officials released the final draft of the Delta Plan to restore the long beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a vital estuary that provides water to Central Valley farmers and most of the state’s residents. The plan is the product of the Delta Stewardship Council, formed in 2009 to resolve problems with water management and ecosystem decline.

The plight of the Delta, which has buckled under the stresses of agricultural demand and the needs of a growing population, has received a fair amount of coverage over the years. Articles have looked at subsidence due to groundwater pumping, pollution, earthquake vulnerability, and the decline of salmon, smelt, and other native fish.

Release of the Delta Plan’s final draft, which will be reviewed next week, wasn’t big news, however. It was the sixth iteration in a long, fraught process. As the Sacramento Bee reported:

Over the next many decades, elements of the plan could include better flood control, water conservation, species protection, habitat restoration, ground and surface water storage, invasive species control and many others.

With such a hefty list, its not surprising that previous drafts have brought in about 10,000 comments from the public from about 250 separate people or groups.

“We can’t wait any longer to get started,” said Joe Grindstaff, executive officer of the Stewardship Council during a conference call with water reporters Monday.
“The situation with the Delta gets worse with each passing day.”

To look forward, and understand where to go, one sometimes has to look back, however. Such was the reasoning behind a fantastic multimedia project launched by Quest just days before the release of the latest Delta Plan.

The project focused on two “ecological detectives” from the San Francisco Estuary Institute, who used extensive archival and historical sources to chart the sweeping ecological change that has taken place there. Working with the two scientists, Quest constructed a wonderfully engaging interactive map that takes readers on tour of two centuries of man-made change. According to the Quest’s report:

By layering together this historical information in space and time, researchers have created a detailed map of the land types, waterways, and plant communities of 200 years ago. The map reveals an interconnected ecosystem of incredible complexity: rich, riverfront forests in the north Delta, lush wetlands and branching channels in the central Delta and a varied, seasonal floodplain in the south Delta.

This map doesn’t provide a literal blueprint for remaking the Delta today. But understanding the physical and biological processes that once made the ecosystem flourish could dramatically improve habitat restoration efforts to come.

The saga taking place in the Delta is a subject that also hasn’t escaped the notice of the newly minted Pacific Standard magazine. Launched in 2008 by philanthropist Sarah Miller-McCune—who founded the academic publishing company SAGE with her late husband, George McCune—the publication has spent the last five years producing excellent, research-driven journalism focused on solutions to today’s largest social challenges, from climate change to global hunger.

In the March/April 2012 issue, Editor-in-chief Maria Streshinsky announced that the publication was changing it’s name from Miller-McCune in order to emphasize its strategic location. With countries of the Pacific Rim becoming increasingly important to global politics and economics, and its own offices sitting a mile from the ocean, the magazine’s editors realized they had a special point of view.

“Our stories won’t be solely about the West,” Streshinsky promised, but they will come “from a Pacific perspective and a Western sensibility.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.