It was early in 2003 in the newsroom of the Rocky Mountain News, and a few of us were brainstorming for fresh ways to tell the story of our ongoing drought. It had hit hardest in 2002, when precipitation in Colorado dropped to levels unseen for hundreds of years. We wanted to do more than just write the bread-and-butter stories on parched reservoirs, anemic snowfall, tree-ring studies, and lawn-watering restrictions. But what would this different coverage include?
How could our coverage bring home to our 300,000 mostly Denver-area readers the story of this drought? Generally speaking our readers’ relationship to water was defined by their love of Kentucky bluegrass lawns, long hot showers, and the bottled stuff they drink during their workouts. Despite its proximity to them, most of them did not feel the least bit threatened by the drought. After all, it’s the big cities on Colorado’s Front Range, such as Denver and Colorado Springs, which have some of the more extensive water supplies and sophisticated treatment and delivery systems, who are best equipped to march through a drought unscathed.
I was intrigued immediately by the notion of finding ways to show how insulated city dwellers are from this problem and of exploring the impact our thirsty water habits have on other regions of the state, such as depleting mountain streams or drying up farmland. I believed then—and still do—that the vast majority of urban dwellers have little, or no, idea where their water comes from and how their growing demands affect other people and the environment. I’ve long been interested in how residents in Colorado’s semiarid climate spray endless amounts of water over a nonnative plant (bluegrass), trying to put a green blush on a region that is naturally brown almost the entire year.
From several years of covering environmental matters in the southern part of the state for a previous newspaper, I was also vaguely aware of a long-running struggle over water between a booming Denver suburb and a tiny farming community that is a three-hour drive to the southeast. In our small newsroom group, I wondered aloud if that wouldn’t be a story to tell more fully to our readers. After all, like so much newspaper work, it had emerged previously only in 10- or 15-inch bites, once every few years. Who really knew the whole story and its relevance to broader water issues?
At the time, of course, I had no idea that this concept would explode into a 24-page, richly photographed special section in the Rocky Mountain News with a title that was appropriately biblical- sounding, “Dividing the Waters.” (Credit for the title goes to our topnotch copyeditor John Moore.) What started as a poorly formed idea became a piece like nothing else I’ve worked on in my 18 years as a journalist: a narrative tale spanning nearly 25 years, complete with characters, dialogue and loads of dramatic tension.
How this happened is a testament to several factors: the way stories can suck you in and take over your journalistic life; the importance of sharing your excitement and direction with your editors; the advantage of having supportive and enthusiastic supervisors with faith in your ability to carry out a vision, and a willingness to give enough time to be thorough in your reporting. I would add to these the advantage of having an engaged and talented photographer interested in making the effort to grasp the scope of the story—and not always with a camera.
Constructing the Narrative
Let’s start with the fundamentals. Aurora, an ambitious Denver suburb, had forged a reputation for aggressively seeking and acquiring water—a difficult and costly endeavor in Colorado and much of the arid West. In the 1980’s, during its most significant growth period, Aurora had obtained a relatively small share from an irrigation ditch running through a tiny farming town, Rocky Ford, in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley.
At the time, the water purchase barely made news in Denver, but in the river valley, where the loss of agricultural water was seen as a cultural and economic deathblow, the deal was scandalous. It pitted farmers willing to sell their share in the ditch against townsfolk who accused them of drying up the town’s future. Now, in the drought-ravaged days of 2002 and 2003, Aurora was again turning its eyes to Rocky Ford in the hopes of purchasing the remaining shares of the same irrigation ditch, ones it hadn’t bought the first time around.
That’s about what I knew after some cursory reporting over a couple of days. But even with that framework in mind, the story provided some challenges. One of the biggest happened in its earliest stages, before it was clear the story would morph into a massive special section, when my initial reporting helped me to realize that some of the most interesting and important elements of the piece were historical. But I was afraid that including so much history would be a turnoff to editors. After all, we’re in the news business. We write about now, not then.
But I also believed—and conveyed to the editors—that the origins of the water deal in the 1980’s, and the controversy the original water transfer created in Rocky Ford, was critical if we wanted our readers to have the necessary context to understand why current efforts to move even more water out of the region were so important. And we needed to go beyond even that. To set up the story fully, we needed to tell readers a bit about the beginnings of two dusty 19th century Colorado towns—how they first obtained water, how one became a farming mecca, legendary for its melons and cantaloupes, and how one became a municipal powerhouse, addicted to growth.
Doing the historical research was great fun. Looking at old court papers, news clips, and talking to old-timers was nothing new for me, but trying to string it all into a narrative account by trying, for example, to put the several people in a negotiating room two decades ago, posed a new reporting challenge.
My eureka moment—when the general starting point and structure of the story became clear—came while I was researching Aurora’s political history. I was on the lookout for symbols that represented the city’s desire to outrank Denver as Colorado’s signature locale. I came across a few yellowed clips from the late 1970’s outlining the city’s breathless plans to annex property on which developers were to build an outrageous theme park called Science Fiction Land. The goofiness of the plans appealed to my boyish nostalgia for comic books: security guards flying about on jetpacks, a robot-staffed bowling alley of 1,000 lanes, and holographic wildlife roaming the park. What better way to shatter any notion this would be one more “dry” story about water by starting the tale in Science Fiction Land?
Much to my relief, the editors didn’t despair about injecting so much history into this story; they embraced it. They shared my trepidation, but agreed that there’s a time when, if a newspaper is to really tell a story, it needs to tell it, beginning to end.
At the same time I needed to track down the necessary characters. Early on, my direct editor on the story, Carol Hanner, had pushed us to turn this into a narrative tale. But to do a narrative story requires characters. Who would they be, and how do I identify them when the story sprawls over 25 years? One challenge involved the fact that even though it seemed initially that editors were going to give me ample time to do this piece, it wasn’t yet clear how much time. I certainly hadn’t been given a green light for three months of work, yet I felt pressure (much of it self-generated) to move quickly. But I didn’t have the luxury of moving to Rocky Ford for a couple of weeks or canvassing Aurora for days, which is what I needed to do to find people who had driven this story over the years. (My responsibilities at home prevented me from being out of town for more than two days at a time.) I’d make the long trek to Rocky Ford only in short bursts of a few days, and this meant I had to make decisions fast and right: I couldn’t afford the time if I staked my claim to the wrong people.
In short, through a blitzkrieg of phone calls, clip research (my desk was stacked so high with musty envelopes from the paper’s basement that my colleagues began to wonder if I’d swapped jobs with the archivist), and rushed trips to Rocky Ford, I emerged with a set of people whom I believed would be the backbone of the story. In the case of Aurora, I identified not only its current utilities director, a man desperately seeking more water for the town, as a key character, but the booming city itself, which more than any one person seemed to represent the movement of Colorado’s water from farms to cities.
Spending time with these folks and getting their stories, indeed, nailing down many, many specific and historic facts about their stories, became my priority. And it wasn’t always easy. One of them, a newspaper editor in the southern Colorado town of Pueblo who’d taken to publicly vilifying those who sold water to the Denver region, granted me only a half-hour interview. A major onion grower in Rocky Ford, who was selling his water, never seemed to be around and was virtually unreachable by phone. But I had to keep trying because he was such a colorful guy and an important player, and finally our paths crossed as I busily crammed my reporting into every available hour I had there.
As the structure, content and characters emerged, it began to dawn on me and my editors that we might want to take this story to another level and to devote significant space to it. In better understanding the weight of these issues— the near-death of a once-bountiful farm town, the inexorable growth of Aurora, the way the story embodied the transition from Colorado’s agrarian past to its urban future—we realized the story represented a near-perfect case study of the conflict over water in Colorado. With this one story, in effect, we could tell a thousand stories about water’s movement and the political reasons for it—stories that have played out across the state in obscurity for years.
I learned some important lessons about long narratives in doing this project. Other than nailing down the concept, the most urgent task involves identifying major characters. This is easier said than done, but it is immensely helpful if, fairly early on, you can find the people who will drive your storytelling. If I could do it again, I’d spend several days in relevant places without even opening my notebook. Of course, that’s a luxury that few reporters can afford these days, but ideally I’d try initially to immerse myself without reporting pressures in the two communities.
Something I did that proved helpful for such a long story with so many historical facts was create a research database on my computer that allowed me to compile important facts and figures as I came across them. Later, when I was writing, having this database prevented me from having to thumb through stacks and stacks of resources while it gave me a reference to the information if I needed to go back and reread an old article or other document. I’d encourage this approach for any piece of significant length and depth.
I also avoided spending too much time diving into the complexities and jargon of water issues. It is an area that can swallow reporters up in legal mumbo jumbo. The legal fight going on here was important, but I tried to stay conscious of not letting water law arcania stand in the way of the story. Always stay focused on the simple issue at hand, I’d remind myself: Water supporting an agricultural community was in jeopardy of flowing instead to a booming urban region.
Finally, like in any reporting experience, I’d advise journalists to be ready to jettison first impressions. I had the image of Aurora as a shark on the prowl for water, ready to dry up any farming community standing in its way by unleashing lawyers, money and big-city muscle. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. There were no black or white hats in the story—just a lot in shades of gray. This wasn’t the infamous story of Los Angeles de-watering the Owens Valley. Aurora had many defenders in the very town it was drying up, as did the farmers who were selling their water. And Aurora officials were keenly aware of their impact on a small town’s economy and have continued to help the town find new strategies for coping with the vanishing water.
Those complexities made the story more enjoyable to tell. And readers noticed. Several on both sides of the debate, who’d had the same initial impression as I did, told me later that the story helped them understand it wasn’t greedy farmers or cities that were killing farm towns. Rather the culprits in changing the way water moves in Colorado and the West are the large demographic and economic forces far beyond the control of any one person or group.
Todd Hartman has spent the last decade as the environment reporter at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The Gazette of Colorado Springs. He spent 1998-99 as a fellow at the Ted Scripps Fellowship for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.