Joyce Terhaar

Media must make a difference in coverage of California’s drought

In times of crisis, journalism can – and should – make a difference.

California’s drought and the response by media all over the world should be the latest example. While farmers fallow fields and all 39 million of the rest of us shorten our showers and let the lawn turn brown, the world is watching to see how we weather this challenge.

National Geographic published an interesting and fun interactive. The Guardian wrote about how the drought is “bringing one of the richest states in America to its knees.” East Coast media powerhouses have joined the reporting fray, along with myriad online news sites and small television stations. Even “The Daily Show” chimed in, Jon Stewart-style, with a talking almond and hamburger arguing about water use.

Our drought is a huge story because California plays an outsized role feeding the world and leading innovation. Some of journalism’s most respected brands are providing thoughtful coverage, yet far too much of the media onslaught lacks California perspective and context. There’s a crowded bandwagon quoting the same information without showing whether it is true. The hyperbole is a bit much. The coverage is not, yet, journalism that makes a difference.

Spend some time searching coverage of California’s drought and you find a repetitive march of facts that are not sourced and angles pushed by special interest groups.

For instance: Take the oft-quoted statistic that it takes 1 gallon of water to produce one almond. Most coverage states this as a fact. Where does it come from? Look around and you find a February 2014 Mother Jones graphic titled “How thirsty is your food?” that is intended to show water used to grow food, whether a head of broccoli (5.4 gallons) or one walnut (4.9 gallons) or the oft-mentioned almond (1.1 gallon). What most reports skip over is that Mother Jones discloses the figures “indicate how much water it takes to bring each crop to maturity in the U.S., if using only irrigated water.” The figures are from a study from 1996 to 2005 by two researchers in the Netherlands.

Is it relevant to today’s debate about the future of farming in California? Is it even accurate any more, given money invested by some growers to conserve water? It seems, at a minimum, in need of deeper reporting and the disclosure that water experts don’t use this measurement, they look at water used per acre of crop. (Yes, I know, not nearly as fun a number).

Bee journalists have many additional questions we’ll be working to answer this year. I suspect it will be California’s media, not those serving an audience with a more fleeting interest, who cover the drought most thoroughly. Who fact-check those spinning the story to serve their interests. Who provide the detailed information you need to make smart water use decisions in your daily life.

We started reporting such information early in this now-four-year drought, adding new features last year. Last week we repackaged the best of those at “Water & Drought” at sacbee.com to ensure you can easily find them. They include:

▪  Answers to reader water questions. Three Bee reporters took reader water questions daily for several months last year, providing answers at sacbee.com. Questions ranged from the pros and cons of installing artificial grass to why more water can’t be used from Lake Tahoe.

▪  “Water-wise” tips from The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, each week in the Home & Garden section. The tips are aimed at residential water use, whether in a home or outside.

▪  A city-by-city guide to watering days so you don’t get fined for watering at the wrong times.

▪  A collection of advice and resources to weather the drought.

Ultimately, our goal is to keep you informed and to investigate water use and policy decisions. Last year, reporter Matt Weiser reported nearly 100 stories about the drought. That expertise meant The Bee was able to alert readers ahead of time to upcoming restrictions, in a story March 13. Weiser’s story proved prescient when, three days later, the State Water Resources Control Board made its decision to order every urban water agency to limit outdoor watering. Then reporter David Siders was in Phillips about two weeks later for a historic decision by Gov. Jerry Brown, who ordered the first mandatory water cutbacks in California.

Expect that kind of news coverage from us to continue. In addition, we’ll work to add context and analysis. Water and drought make for complicated public policy and scientific debate. California political leaders have difficult work in front of them as they tackle the foundation of California’s water system, whether senior water rights – those claimed prior to 1914, or riparian rights held by owners of property abutting a stream or river – or junior.

Powerful and monied interests are working to influence those decisions. You can see that play out in the battle over statistics describing California’s water use. Siders reported this month how the agriculture industry responded to early descriptions from politicians and journalists that agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water used by people in California. It’s not fair to just look at consumption by people, the industry said, pointing out that about half of the state’s water is used for “environmental” purposes and the real number should be about 40 percent.

The nuances of such debate matter as leaders make difficult choices to allocate water. Given that, Siders said this context matters: much of the water labeled “environmental” in California is water deemed not at play – it’s too far north with no way to get it to Central Valley farms, for instance, or it is used to protect the quality of urban and agricultural water. Some also is used to protect wildlife.

We’ll ask and answer questions and continue to provide context. There’s room for you to weigh in as well; check out our new commenting system at sacbee.com (just click on “comments” at the top of any story to sign up) or write a letter to the editor for publication in print.

Call Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.

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