Abrahm Lustgarten, an energy and environment reporter at ProPublica, had a seat right on the battle lines of the Western Water Wars. Having previously lived in a small town on the Colorado River, he developed an awareness of the water scarcity problem, especially as the drought got worse. After relocating to California, Lustgarten sought to bring his experience and long-standing interest in the topic to an investigative piece focused on the importance of water in the West.
His reporting led to a nine-part series called “Killing the Colorado,” which ran from May to July this year, and focused not only on the Centennial state but on issues in Arizona, Nevada (Las Vegas), and California. Lustgarten delved into federal subsidies for cotton under the Farm Bill, pollution problems at the Navajo Generation Station, and a controversial “use it or lose it” law further enabling the misuse of water. Reporting the story was not easy; Lustgarten spent more than a year and a half collecting and requesting information, and learning an extensive amount about the history and laws surrounding water crises. “It was an enormous amount of information, like getting an informal master’s degree,” Lustgarten said.
The story began with “Holy Crop,” an in-depth look into how federal subsidies of cotton under the Farm Bill leads to water shortages, as the crop needs billions of gallons of water to be grown. Lustgarten did “everything under the sun” to obtain public records for the piece, he said, drawing upon court documents, litigation cases, land ownership deeds, peer review studies, and economic reporting under the Farm Bill. It was the latter documents that posed the greatest challenge, Lustgarten said. He filed a FOIA request to solicit records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Farm Bill and subsidy program, and waited more than 8 months to receive the information – and incomplete information at that.
The USDA doesn’t release information that the public actually wants to know, said Lustgarten. His reports came back with generalized info about the number of subsidies per town and the amounts granted, but no information about the individuals who received the money. It was, all-in-all, a FOIA failure, according to Lustgarten. The most recent Farm Bill allowed USDA to withhold information, and there wasn’t enough time to take them to court to get the necessary documents. It’s not an unprecedented response from the USDA: the Farm Service Agency denies more FOIA requests than any other segment of the department (about ½ of the department’s total denials), basing most on confidential, personnel, and medical records exemptions.
Lustgarten also reached out to agencies on the state level, but ran into similar issues. In California, a state law is designed to protect utility customers, by keeping the identity of water users secret and collection info on irrigation water districts only, not the users (i.e. people and companies) who get the water. But the documents were not where the real story was. In this case, going into the field and engaging in face-to-face interviews proved most important.
“These stories are, in the end, analysis,” Lustgarten said. “You’ve got to do the deep reporting, and understand the issue or else your story will just be a superficial version. Ask yourself what you personally think about the story, and use that analysis rather than just direct information you are told.” For example, Lustgarten said, once he found out how water law tells farmers to use their resources in a way that is not always sustainable, he exercised his own judgement. He returned to his sources, and asked them, “If the law allowed you to use less water, would you?” Their affirmative answers added yet another layer of depth to the story.
The problem with analysis is that the readers don’t always agree with the journalist’s point of view. For the most part, Lustgarten’s story received great public feedback, with readers welcoming a new and different perspective and a solutions-based story. However, other readers found fault with Lustgarten’s analysis, some arguing cotton is less water-intensive than Lustgarten claimed, others pointing out discrepancies between the Arizona and California laws discussed in the story.
However, Lustgarten’s story did call attention to a growing problem, and invite discussion and debate in the community. “Nothing is more important than water,” Lustgarten said, and finally this underappreciated resource, vital for the economy, environment, and human health, was brought into the spotlight. Here are couple methods Lustgarten used to make his story stand out.
Lustgarten drew on the introduction and implementation of the Farm Bill over time to explain his story, and touched upon the history of the region’s 15-year-drought and environmental dry spell. He researched early Arizona township organizations and supply and demand of resources during wartime, alluding to Civil War practices and an 150-year-old report to Congress by John Wesley Powell.
Lustgarten worked with over twenty groups, including state and federal agencies; from the California and Arizona Departments of Water Resources to the National Weather Service and Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, the information took up to three years to obtain. The main story these documents told were about money, Lustgarten said, the irony of the government charging individuals and companies less to use more water. To figure out what documents are best suited for the story, Lustgarten said he relied on government experts or lawyers, asking them what kind of state and federal documents were kept related to his topic of interest, and what the specific title and code of the document would be. He talked with FOIA officers at EPA and USDA, trying to identify which records would be most beneficial.
Lustgarten can’t stress the human factor of investigative reporting enough. His one-on-one encounters with farmers, government officials (like the “Water Witch” of Las Vegas) and other members of the community assign a human face to the numbers behind the documents. And the natural landscape has a kind of emotional quality as well, as photographer Michael Friberg brought out in a series “A Wonder in Decline: The Disappearing Lake Powell in Pictures.”
The short story
ProPublica compiled the main points from the series into a notecard-guide, shareable via social media. The shortened stories are posed as a solution-based Q&A, identifying the problems and using graphics, maps, and charts to illustrate statistics. The notecards are an informative way to draw in an audience with perhaps less time or knowledge to dedicate to the full series. Instead of cutting the reporting short, the “Need to Know” article caters to a larger audience who might not have followed the entire series. Most importantly, the notecards point to various solutions for the readers to deliberate amongst each other. And that is how these stories invite and inspire change.