Covering Water When It’s a Commodity
‘Tracking the battles over water isn’t a beat—it’s a career.’
Reporter Elliott Krieger shot me a wry, sideways grin as we watched the first snow flurries in the fall of 1985, and he asked: “So, have you seen snow before?” I’d moved to New England from my native California a few months earlier for a job as a reporter with the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin (now The Providence Journal). I assumed he was joking because I naively thought everyone understood about snow in California. Later, Elliott ribbed me again: “What do Californians know about snow?”
It turns out that snow in California means ski resorts to the people I met in New England. But to many Californians, snow means much more than great skiing. When I moved back to my home state and wound up covering water issues, I realized how clueless I’d been. For far too long, I’ve owed Elliott a better response than I’d managed back in Rhode Island. What better way to make amends than to explain the snowpack in terms of the beat I’ve covered for the past dozen years?
Quite literally, without the snowpack, half of California would dry up and blow away. It is particularly true in central California, where I often write for The Fresno Bee about a $14 billion agricultural economy that lives and dies by the winter snow report. There are about 25,000 farms in this valley alone. Farmers cultivate about seven million acres and grow 250 different crops. This is the San Joaquin Valley, the leading farming region in the country and likely the world. Here a city of 100,000 people could be fit into one corner of some of these farms with room left over to grow thousands of acres of cotton.
It is with these images and figures that I describe the vast scale of this story to editors who might otherwise believe the story belongs somewhere Covering Water When It’s a Commodity ‘Tracking the battles over water isn’t a beat—it’s a career.’ near the obituary page. Unless I find a context that turns heads in the frontpage meetings, I’m going to wind up covering fires and murders instead of water stories. I use every hook I can find, like explaining how farmers use laser technology to level their land and global positioning systems to guide tractors plowing fields so they can be very efficient with water. Why? This verdant countryside rarely sees enough rainfall from May to November to smudge your windshield. How the farmers keep their fields so green is directly connected to the water that is frozen as snow each winter in the Sierra Nevada.
Tracking Water Battles
Here water is a commodity, like gold. It’s something to be stored, obsessed over, and litigated in cases that sometimes end up being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court. An entire culture is built around it, focusing on law, economics, politics and research. Both the state and federal governments have invested billions of dollars in rerouting nature to divert trillions of gallons of water from historic river channels into concrete canals and muddy sloughs in the service of agriculture and the millions of Southern Californians who depend on this source of water. The lawsuits alone are a rich vein of stories, but only if I can explain them in the context of all the tinkering that engineers have done to nature.
But human alterations degrade water quality downstream of some dams, snuff out salmon runs, and exclude the public from using rivers for recreation. And water fights follow. The three I’ve reported on most closely involve the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the San Joaquin River, and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, and I have traveled hundreds of miles to cover these issues. But these battles over water represent only a small slice of this activity. For many decades, people have battled over issues involving the Colorado River, Lake Tahoe, the Klamath River, and the Trinity River. And who could forget Los Angeles and the Owens Valley, a fight that was memorialized in the movie “Chinatown.” Just mentioning these subjects can stir emotional arguments, and books have been written about many of these fights.
Tracking the battles over water isn’t a beat—it’s a career.
But any reporter who wants to wade into this must know that everything starts in the Sierra Nevada, which means “snowy mountains.” The Sierra is one of the snowiest places in the country. Between blizzards, helicopters carry hydrologists into alpine meadows at 10,000 feet or even higher each January and February to measure the depth and water content. I will often take the gut-turning helicopter ride, walk on snowshoes, and witness the measurements. It’s a long day, but well worth the time and effort. Farmers and many others closely watch newspapers and various Web pages to get some hint of how much water there will be. Their next crop loans, the amount of leased acreage, and a host of other details depend on that water supply.
Each spring, when immense snowfields in the 400-mile-long Sierra melt into rivers and cascade down ancient, glacially sculpted canyons, California hears the sound of natural wealth and the economy is born again. Anyone who has been in California for even one season experiences some aspect of this process. Indeed, in a state known for stunning Pacific Ocean sunsets from Malibu to Monterey, the real story is that two-thirds of California’s water comes from the frozen reservoir at the rooftop in the Sierra. Yet coverage of this annual event rarely breaks Page One unless there is a drought or a flood.
When I catch a breaking news story related to the spring thaw, I can write about the key to California’s water. Most of the water originates in Northern California, yet about two-thirds of the state’s 36 million residents live in its southern part. As many have observed, the water flows where the political muscle resides. The state’s complex replumbing of nature is designed primarily to pump fresh river water out of Northern California to send it more than 400 miles south. It’s a well-understood dynamic, especially among my reporting brethren.
Stories Not So Often Told
In the San Joaquin Valley, the southern part of the state’s Central Valley, the dynamics involving water are less well understood. In part, this is because journalists seldom stop here to tell the story. However, one of the bigger stories is finally receiving a little more attention outside of this area. It is the fight to restore the state’s second- longest river, the San Joaquin River, and I’ve been covering this evolving story for the past 15 years.
The river had one of the southernmost salmon fisheries in the country until it was dammed up during the 1940’s and then became dry in two places. For 60 years, up to 90 percent of its snowmelt was directed into irrigation canals and sent to 15,000 farms, as part of the federal Central Valley Project. Environmentalists sued in 1988, challenging the renewal of the federal contract. The focus quickly turned to the destruction of the river and a state law requiring the protection of fisheries downstream of dams.
After 16 years and a failed four-year attempt to settle the lawsuit, a federal judge ruled in September that the operation of Friant Dam, about 15 miles northeast of Fresno, violated state law by wiping out the salmon. Now, with Central Valley farmers contending that nearby cities will lose their economic base without their contribution to the $4 billion economy, both sides await the judge’s decision about how the river will be restored. Environmentalists, based in San Francisco, claim the river can be restored without damage to the valley’s economy as water conservation, water exchanges from other rivers, and other efficiencies will prevent farmers from losing much water.
I’ve been either editing or writing stories about the San Joaquin River since 1988, and I know that the most compelling ones for me to report lie ahead.
Another ongoing water story also involves San Francisco in a very different light. It’s about Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, built in Yosemite in the 1920’s to provide water for San Francisco and residents in surrounding Bay Area communities. San Francisco is one of the few large, urban areas in the country where the drinking water does not need to be filtered because it is pristine snowmelt from a national park.
The reservoir has been considered a black eye to the environmental movement since its construction in the 1920’s. San Francisco, home of environmental progressives, has resisted attempts to study the draining of the reservoir so that Hetch Hetchy Valley, often compared to picturesque Yosemite Valley, could be restored. Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group with offices in the Bay Area, has come up with a feasibility study, showing how the water could be stored downstream. Now, state officials are calling for a more thorough study.
The irony is that progressive San Francisco has always balked at the idea. The city is going through a multibillion- dollar upgrade of its Hetch Hetchy system, and it does not want to give up the reservoir. Pressure has begun to mount after The Fresno Bee’s big sister newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, began a series of editorials advocating restoration studies. Not surprisingly, farmers in the Fresno area consider the Bay Area hypocritical. As one farmer asked: “What’s the difference between Hetch Hetchy and the San Joaquin River?”
The stream feeding Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is the Tuolumne River, which connects downstream with the San Joaquin. It is one of several other major tributaries that help the San Joaquin run north to the delta where it meets the state’s longest river, the Sacramento River. The San Joaquin River Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast. The two rivers push against the Pacific Ocean tide, creating a delicate intermediate zone of life. The delta has suffered greatly from water diversions. California and federal agencies have worked for a decade to restore it while trying to keep water flowing for cities, farms and industries.
Everything that happens at the delta, 165 miles from Fresno, affects my readers. It is not an easy task in a 500-word daily story to explain these relationships. But California gets a lot of new faces each year, so these issues must be explained and revisited. Many new residents, in fact, come from the East—some from New England—and they might be wondering if we’ve ever even seen snow. Forgive me, Elliott, but yes, we have.
Mark Grossi is the environment and natural resources reporter for The Fresno Bee. He is a former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His natural history and guidebook on the Sierra Nevada was published in 2000.