Why Journalists Need to Cover the Water Story
Leavenworth, Stuart, Nieman Reports
"Cadillac Desert" is arguably the most influential environmental book published in the past 30 years. Before Marc Reisner produced this 513-page work, there was little public understanding of the West's powerful water rustlers; the immense public subsidies that benefited irrigated agriculture, and the myth that cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles could continue to add millions of people without the taps running dry.
Given that "Cadillac Desert" is still a big seller, one might think that editors and broadcast producers would recognize the public's intense interest in water issues. They don't. With few exceptions, leading newspapers aren't helping answer basic questions about the security of their community's water systems, the growing privatization of water, and the inevitable impact of coming droughts and floods.
I recently finished a stint covering Western water issues for The Sacramento Bee. 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. Water makes up 70 percent of the earth's surface and about 60 percent of our bodies' weight. It's a fundamental resource for life.
Reisner wrote that water flows uphill toward money. We care about money, don't we? Business desks have reporters covering banks and oil supplies. Why not water?
The Water Beat
Media outlets only tend to focus on water when its absence or abundance creates a full-blown crisis, says Rita Schmidt Sudman, who runs the Water Education Foundation, a nonprofit based in California. Back when California Governor Jerry Brown was pushing the idea of a 42-mile Peripheral Canal to ship water from Northern to Southern California, political reporters dropped what they were doing and became experts on [H.sub.2]O. Voters defeated the canal in 1982, so water was ignored for a while. Interest by journalists perked up during the drought of 1987-1992, then went back into hibernation.
"Right now, I don't see the intensity of coverage I would expect to see," says Sudman, who notes the Colorado River is in the sixth year of drought. Las Vegas, almost wholly dependent on shrinking Lake Mead, could see its neon economy start to blink; Mexico is fighting with the United States over two rivers (the Colorado and the Rio Grande); dams might be torn down in the Northwest to help salmon.
"Water is all about power politics," says Sudman, who has covered these stories for more than 25 years for Western Water, a quarterly publication. "It involves money and growth and where people will live and how they will live. It's a great story, and it deserves to be taken seriously."
Here are some prevailing myths about the water beat:
* Water is boring: "Fell this to anyone who has seen the movie "Chinatown." The exercise of brute waterpower is a fascinating tale and, although today's water barons don't usually slice open each other's noses, they still play tough.
* Water is an environment beat: Partly, yes, but not entirely. Covering water involves a fundamental understanding of engineering, economics, meteorology and agriculture, which is the largest user of water in the country.
* Water supply is just a West Coast worry: There is an old saying about water: On the East Coast, people take it for granted. On the West Coast, we take it from each other. The drought of 2003 revealed that hundreds of East Coast communities were unprepared to deal with even a two-month dry spell. Soon these communities were fighting among themselves for water, just like the thugs did in "Chinatown."
I fell into the water beat like a toddler learning to swim. Before joining The Sacramento Bee, I worked as the environment reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, covering industrial hog farming, hurricanes, floods and other disasters. …