Water is the essence of life, and its cleanliness, availability, and our use and abuse of it are stories meriting reporters’ and editors’ attention. Yet as Stuart Leavenworth, who covered water issues for The Sacramento Bee and describes the wide array of issues he took on, reports: “To my chagrin, I had the beat largely to myself for four years. Across the country, papers have tackled problems of water pollution and degradation, but have overlooked fundamental issues of supply—and sustainability. This is curious.”
Seth Hettena, who covers water for The Associated Press in San Diego, writes about “this remarkable beat” and explains that “the story of water in the West has a natural tension that makes it easy to write.” Photographer John Trotter chronicles the slow death of the Colorado River Delta and the effect this has on the native Cucapá tribe who rely on this water, but with the delta’s demise can no longer be self-sustaining. With the rain-deprived San Joaquin Valley’s farmland as his backdrop, Mark Grossi, the environment and natural resources reporter for The Fresno Bee, connects readers to farmers’ vital sources of water, which he describes as being a prized commodity “… like gold. It’s something to be stored, obsessed over and litigated ….” Using aerial photography, David Maisel shows what Owens Lake looks like with its water diverted to Los Angeles and a system of shallow flooding controlling pollution from windblown dust.
When Scott Streater was environmental reporter with the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, he followed a tip through a year and a half of “intense research” to produce a three-day series about how the public’s drinking water became polluted with radium. D’Vera Cohn, a metro reporter with The Washington Post, explains why in the past year her newspaper published more than 100 stories about the water utility’s refusal to tell customers about the unhealthy, lead-contaminated drinking water or act quickly to fix the problem. From KDFW in Dallas, Paul Adrian, investigative reporter with the local Fox-owned and operated affiliate, writes about catching on video city agencies violating their own regulations and polluting the city’s river: “What we found is that the quality of regulation depended highly on the identity of the polluter.”
Environmental reporter Eric Staats writes about how sightings of “black water” by Gulf of Mexico fisherman led the Naples (Fla.) Daily News on an 18-month search for answers about “how coastal population growth and industry are destroying wetlands, polluting rivers, injuring marine life, and sickening people.” At The Boston Globe, Beth Daley reported a four-part series about ocean fishing: “Without having a person, regulatory agency or group at fault, it was difficult to find a conventional organizing mechanism for all of our reporting,” she says.
At the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, water gets attention. From the city desk, Jerd Smith tackles the water beat in this drought-stricken area where no central regulating agency oversees water’s use. “The beat is shrouded in arcane procedures, measurement conundrums, unanswered legal questions and, of course, closely guarded meetings,” she writes. Smith’s colleague, Todd Hartman, connected urban readers to the state’s drought by bringing an intense narrative focus to a long-running battle over water usage involving two Colorado communities. “Dividing the Waters,” Hartman’s 24-page special section, went on the paper’s Web site with links to video documentaries of each community done by Sonya Doctorian, who writes about this collaboration. Then Hartman’s stories, along with the section’s photos and graphics, were given to Roger Fidler, now a journalism fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, who explains how he created for the newspaper’s Web site a new Digital Newsbook that can be downloaded and read offline.
The film “Thirst” focused on a struggle in Stockton, California about a multinational water company taking control of the city’s water, a f ght that documentary filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman connect to international conflicts involving water privatization. William Marsden, an investigative reporter for The Gazette in Montreal, Canada, describes “The Water Barons” project for The Center for Public Integrity, in which a global team of investigative reporters set out to examine the details of what was happening in countries where efforts existed to privatize water. Despite the difficulty of reporting about multinational water companies with ties to powerful figures in Indonesia, Andreas Harsono writes that “I tried hard to use not a single anonymous source.”
Jacques Leslie, a journalist whose soon-to-be published book, “Deep Water,” revolves around contentious issues of dam construction, relied on “stories with flesh and bones” to bring statistics about these projects alive. Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a reporter at The Nation in Bangkok, Thailand, shares difficulties he’s had in reporting on dam projects in Southeast Asia because “governments … don’t want journalists to watch too closely.”
Egyptian online journalist Nadia El-Awady found good cooperation from water officials when she reported on pollution along the Nile and one community’s efforts to transform its polluted waterway into a healthy environment. Despite the importance of water to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Zafrir Rinat, an environmental reporter for Haaretz in Tel Aviv, Israel, writes that water is usually ignored when it doesn’t pose an immediate crisis. Dagmar Dehmer, an environmental reporter with Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, observed a similar reluctance by editors to focus on lingering water issues after a disastrous flood receded. As she writes, “These are complicated issues with high relevance to people’s lives but with no immediate public annoyance to bring the issues to the surface.” Longtime environmental journalist Rakesh Kalshian explains why water coverage in India is “monochromatic … [as] newspapers have become increasingly intolerant of long analytical narratives on water issues” and stories about the poor are not published or broadcast. In Nepal, Soniya Thapa tells of efforts by the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All group to provide training in a rural village so journalists learn about water and sanitation problems and can tell water stories that aren’t being widely told.