How dry I am

The most fundamental element of life is water. So why aren't newsrooms covering it like a beat?
March 3, 2014

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.

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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.

Despite all this, I wasn’t doing much reporting on water. It sounds strange, but I felt a bit of a disconnect between water and drought. Drought is really a story about crisis–who is suffering and how. Stories about water supplies–the long-term business of building reservoirs, recharging aquifers, desalinating water, and so on–seemed almost like a different subject at that time. (They also were mostly moot if it didn’t rain.)

So when the fateful press release hit my inbox, I’m not sure I even realized that Texas had a water plan. It was just another annoying item to deal with, at a time when I was feeling overworked. But later, when I buckled down and read the actual document, my understanding of the beat changed. I stopped chasing drought stories as intensively, and I started going after the big-picture water-supply stories.

For general-interest newspapers, water is normally a subset of the environmental beat. There, it competes for space with air pollution; “go-green” efforts by companies; broad climate change impacts and initiatives; and even energy. All are vital topics, to be sure, and offer some overlap with water. But given the magnitude of the environmental beat and the scarce resources devoted to it these days, water can get lost in the shuffle.

When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.

I called him in October. Halfway through our hour-long conversation, I told him that he might be the nation’s only stand-alone water reporter for a general-interest publication. “That’s kind of sad,” Woodka said, after a pause. It’s something he’s heard before, however, often from people in the industry who want more coverage of their field.Nearly 20 years ago, Woodka remembered, he attended a conference on Western water law in Phoenix that was expressly geared toward journalists covering water. “It reminds me that there’s a lot less people reporting on it these days,” he said.

Woodka grew up in Arizona, a desert state where “water was news,” with the construction of vast reservoirs and aqueducts during the last century. He made his way to the Chieftain in 1985 and got tapped as its water reporter in 2004.

That the Chieftain has perhaps the only water reporter in the country is no coincidence. The publication is obsessed with water. The reason is partly location: The farmland near Pueblo is fed by the Arkansas River, and the area has become a top target of the fast-expanding suburbs of Denver, as well as Colorado Springs and its suburbs. More important, though, is the Chieftain‘s aging publisher, Bob Rawlings. “You have to understand our publisher to understand his passion for water,” says Woodka.

Rawlings, born to a Pueblo family in 1924, began working at the Chieftain when he was 23, after serving in the Navy during World War II. He’s old enough to remember the Dust Bowl, when the swirling dirt raced across land destroying crops and livelihoods. Rawlings is a character, to put it mildly. A 2012 profile in High Country News, the great publication about Western lands, described him as “mercurial, by turns gracious, prickly and sentimental.” Saving Pueblo from “buy and dry” schemes became his mission, and he promoted it with sharply worded editorials against plans to “take the lifeblood of the Arkansas Valley and wash it down the South Platte.”

Things heated up about 15 years ago, when the Denver suburb of Aurora redoubled its efforts to tap into a canal in the Arkansas Valley. “It just seems like they would buy every ditch in the valley and then transport the water out of the valley to the greater Denver area,” Woodka recalls. So Rawlings went to work, supplementing his crusading editorials by hiring a full-time water reporter in 2002. Woodka, who’s been on the beat for 10 years, is prolific. “One time my editor counted and I’d written 1,000 [stories] in a year,” he says.

Woodka’s coverage became even more crucial as his competitors cut back. Years ago, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post sent reporters to every major water news conference. In 1990, when developers proposed building a dam called Two Forks near Denver, “both papers were covering it like mad,” says Woodka. The dam was ultimately vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency, but “that was really the heyday of water reporting” in Colorado, Woodka says.

Since then, the Rocky has closed and the Post has had its struggles. If there are water conferences or meetings, Woodka says he is typically the only reporter there, unless it’s a major story. Yet despite his constant production, he’s not sure how many readers follow him. The typical Chieftain reader is “not so engaged,” he says. “I would use my wife as an example.” A second tier of readers, though, avidly follows him–a “statewide audience of water lawyers and politicians and engineers who read every word.”

The bottom line, Woodka says, is that “I have a local readership that kind of makes fun of me for doing all of this, and then a statewide readership that depends on me.”

Woodka’s observations about readership struck a chord with me. During three years at The Texas Tribune, I had essentially the same feeling. I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the Tribune pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens–many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.

Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system. That matters enormously because the delta, which is where the huge Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers flow into the ocean, urgently needs a multibillion-dollar fix. It is a rich farming area that supplies two-thirds of Californians’ water but also faces substantial ecological and infrastructure problems. The sheer complexity of the delta makes the issues particularly tough to communicate to the public, but all the more vital.

People don’t care about water because they take it for granted. As Ken Kramer, a long-time Sierra Club hand in Austin, put it to me, “Most people–especially people living in cities–sort of assume that there’s always going to be water coming out of their tap.” Farmers feel the strain of drought, but an urban society feels far more immune. People may notice lawn-watering restrictions imposed by their local utility during times of drought, but even then they may not pay much attention, especially if the restrictions are voluntary, as they often are. The price of water isn’t an attention-grabber, either. Water bills are low, prompting economists to argue that the resource is badly undervalued.

It’s true that newspapers have a shrinking cadre of reporters, and instead of water, they’ve chosen to allocate their resources toward well-established beats. But why is this, and does it have to be this way?

To take an obvious example–why does energy, a close cousin of the environmental beat, get so much more attention than water? First, energy may seem more interesting and diverse. There are wind turbines and solar panels and drilling rigs and nuclear reactors and fields of corn to make ethanol. Water, by contrast, is more drab; it’s found in lakes and rivers and under the ground. Finding a photograph to accompany an aquifer story is hard, because you can’t actually see the water, only the pumps or pipes above-ground.

More important, there’s a lot more money in the energy beat. One US government website estimates that energy is a $6 trillion global industry. Energy reporters are “covering some of the world’s most valuable companies,” notes Brett Walton, of the nonprofit water reporting website Circle of Blue. There’s not nearly as much money in water, which is largely, though not exclusively, controlled by public utilities. Tellingly, water has far fewer niche journalism outfits, including Walton’s Circle of Blue and the more industry-oriented Global Water Intelligence, than does energy.

But journalists, of course, have a role beyond simply reinforcing the knowledge and interests of the reading public. They also explain what’s important, and can create a conversation where one doesn’t exist. Water is fundamental, and the strains on communities will only grow more intense as population growth continues and climate change brings more severe droughts and floods, particularly to the arid West.

So what to write about? Drought, when it hits, provides a good starting point; as the saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. At The Texas Tribune, readers seemed most interested in one thing: Who was running out of water, and when, and why? A Texas state environmental agency publishes an online list, updated weekly, of communities that could run out of water within 180 days. The Tribune turned the list into a map, which periodically becomes one of the most-viewed items on the website. California published a similar who-could-run-out-of-water list in January, and it, too, created a sensation.

Beyond simple scarcity, the stories are endless. There is the famed energy-water nexus, which touches on everything from the water needed for hydraulic fracturing (a popular topic with readers) to the electricity needs of desalination and water pumping. There are fights over proposed reservoirs, and water reuse projects (widely known as “toilet to tap,” a term the industry would love to banish). There are fights between states and fights within states, between cities and farmers and frackers. There are cultural questions about how to coax communities to conserve, technology questions about sensors and new irrigation techniques, and climate questions about the future. There are issues of waterway ecology and water quality, both of which to my mind, are particularly neglected corners of the water beat.

In some ways, water is an easy beat in which to find information. That’s not universally true: A big frustration is the lack of standardized data, since water usage in one city may be measured differently than in another. But because water is a less corporatized sector than energy, it’s much easier to find good sources who don’t hide behind their public-relations department. And because water agencies are typically public entities, their records are available.

Great water reporting may be in short supply as a general rule, but there are a handful of exceptions. You just have to know where to look. In Texas, water reporting has picked up dramatically from where it was three years ago. I’m hardly unbiased, but I would put The Texas Tribune in the lead. I left the Tribune last June to move to California, and Neena Satija, the Trib’s new environment reporter, has been pounding away at the beat, with a major water story about every week. StateImpact Texas, an NPR project that launched in late 2011 (shortly after the water plan press release), won a Murrow Award for its drought coverage the following year, in collaboration with Austin public-radio station KUT.

John Fleck at the Albuquerque Journal follows New Mexico’s drought and flooding issues closely, and Matt Weiser at the Sacramento Bee and Paul Rogers at the San Jose Mercury News keep tabs on California water policy and the complicated delta project. Three reporters at Circle of Blue, where Brett Walton works, pump out stories from around the country. The news agency Bloomberg has been covering water more closely; and there are a number of recent books on water, too, including Charles Fishman’s The Big Thirst and Alex Prud’homme’s The Ripple Effect.

But the best reporting will always be local. Water, in the end, varies a lot from one region to another. I have set Google Alerts for all kinds of water issues–water in Idaho and Kansas, water lawsuits and water crises. Every week they bring a host of fascinating tidbits to my inbox. I find myself wanting to hop on a plane to go report.

Kate Galbraith is a journalist based in San Francisco.