Posts Tagged ‘California’


The flow of information: Reporting on water in the west

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.

Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica covers energy, environment, and most recently, the water wars in the Western U.S.

Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica covers energy, environment, and most recently, the water wars in the Western U.S.

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.

lustgarten4

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.

Lustgarten mapped out 161,000 acres of cotton fields in Arizona, www.propublica.org

Lustgarten mapped out 161,000 acres of cotton fields in Arizona, www.propublica.org

“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.

 

www.propublica.org

www.propublica.org

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.

Historical background

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.

Public documents

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.

One-on-one reporting

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.”

Lustgarten5

 

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.

Have you dealt with drought or reported on the water wars? Email amayrianne@spj.org or tweet @amayrianne about your experience.

Shaking things up: Michael Corey on reporting earthquakes in fracking’s boom time

“And as we all know, Oklahoma has more earthquakes than California,” the seismologist said. But until Michael Corey from the Center for Investigative Reporting attended the American Geophysical Union conference last December, he hadn’t known that. Corey, who had previously covered earthquakes in his home state of California, was shocked. He had a new story.

Using earthquake catalogs and science scripts from the US Geological Survey, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, and the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, Corey mapped seismic activity against state boundary lines. He discovered a surprising truth. Over the last decade, Oklahoma, a state with historically few earthquakes, had progressively become three times more active than California.

By Michael Corey, Center for Investigative Reporting

By Michael Corey, Center for Investigative Reporting

See the interactive map.

The question was why. In Corey’s original article from February, he uncovered that the likely cause of the earthquakes was an increase in injection wells, underground tanks where the polluted water from fracking is stored. But the oil companies were “a brick wall” and denied any responsibility, he said, so he relied on scientific studies to look for answers.

The majority of scientists and seismologists were incredibly cooperative, Corey says. They wanted the data to be used and made public, and helped to walk him through the interpretation of the information. However, that wasn’t the case with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, where both the interim director and lead seismologist could not be reached for comment. Corey also relied on court documents, in which a resident sued an oil company, building codes, and state emergency plans to report his story.

One problem was that “induced seismic activity (aka human-caused) is omitted from the USGS hazards model because the agency hasn’t decided how to quantify the risk. Meanwhile, Building Seismic Safety Councils rely on these models to update their code requirements every five years. With old or inaccurate information, Oklahoma’s architecture is left vulnerable. In this case the information is there, but no one really knows what do with it.

Listening to the Science: An Unconventional Way to Use Data in Your Reporting  

Corey decided to listen to the data. In a radio broadcast story debuted this weekend, Corey used an audio track to simulate the increase in earthquakes over time. He downloaded earthquake catalog data from the last decade from the Northern California Earthquake Data Center, and translated each data point through a synthesizer. Now each earthquake, represented by a chime-like “ping,” could be heard and imagined, different pitches and frequencies corresponding to stronger or weaker seismic activity.

It was a good alternative for a radio story, in which documents and data could be read aloud but not visualized. By 2014, the audio track is a constant clanging of bells and chimes, illustrating the severity of Oklahoma’s earthquakes. This, coupled with interviews, brought life to a story built primarily on geological data and scientific jargon.

“For the radio story we had to put more emphasis on the human voice,” Corey explained.  “With no documents or figures to show, we instead set scenes and characters, and bring in people who have experienced earthquakes.”

Listen to the full broadcast here.

Corey offers some advice to environmental journalists looking to report similar stories.

Michael Corey, www.revealnews.org

Michael Corey, www.revealnews.org

Get involved. Corey got the idea for his story attending his first geoscience conference. Not only do conferences and events like this generate ideas, they will also link you to important sources.

Seek a second opinion. Scientists, like journalists, rely on multiple sources before stating something as fact. Peer reviewed journals are your best bet, says Corey. This is especially true with oil company stories, where companies employ full-time researchers whose findings may be biased.

Become tech-savvy. In addition to the audio synthesizer track, Corey created visualizations and completed data analysis using tools like Quantum GIS and Python.

Stay modest.You’re not going to understand everything, so follow up and read about it. Show interest in the topic, but be careful not to write before you understand the issue. You could end up getting a lot wrong,” he warns.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

FOI Daily Dose: California Supreme Court rules digital maps not exempt from Public Records Act

California’s Supreme Court granted free public access to digital maps of Orange County once exempt as computer software and only available to business groups, according to Voice of OC.

The Sierra Club asked for access to digital maps called the OC Landbase in 2005 to study how to best manage open space parcels in public lands and create wildlife corridors.

But Orange County denied their request, claiming the maps were exempt from the California Public Records Act as the product of computer software.

Section 6254.9 of the Public Records Act says: “Computer software developed by a state or local agency is not itself a public record under this chapter. The agency may sell, lease, or license the software for commercial or noncommercial use.”

But in a June 8 ruling, the court determined that although computer software is still exempt from the Public Records Act, the product of that software—a GIS-formatted database called OC Landbase, in this case—is not exempt.

“I don’t think that government should be in the business of selling public records for profit,” Dean Wallraff, one of Sierra Club’s two leading attorneys, told Voice of OC.

County documents show the OC Landbase cost them $3.5 million to develop during the last five years,  and its licensing deals have brought in fewer than $1 million. That won’t even cover the $1-million legal tab racked up in the records fight. Voice of OC said the bill might fall to taxpayers.

The court opinion showed Orange County was one of nine counties not providing access to Geographic Information System-formatted parcel base maps.

Wallraff told Voice of OC this decision opens the door for other California counties to access their digital maps.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Executive order on contractors fought in D.C., Calif. universities grow more transparent

In D.C., lawmakers fight back against draft exec order

Bills in the House and Senate could preempt a draft executive order by President Obama that would force federal contractors to disclose their political contributions.

The legislation would prohibit the federal government from both collecting and using data about federal contractors’ political expenditures. The House also passed an amendment May 25 to the 2012 defense bill to ban federal departments from collecting such information.

Obama’s draft executive order has received support from open government groups, but has also faced opposition from businesses and members of Congress from both parties.

Calif. universities embrace transparency (with a few caveats)

California State University and the University of California have agreed to withdraw their opposition to public disclosure of campus foundation finances through a compromise with state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and various public records supporters.

While state university officials didn’t want to reveal how campus foundations manage almost $2 billion, the compromise allows them to protect the identities of most donors.

The call for disclosure by campus foundations gained media attention in 2010 when CSU Stanislaus hired former Alaska governor and former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to deliver a speech at a fundraiser but wouldn’t disclose the amount she received until a judge ordered the contract be made public.

CSU and UC will not oppose Senate Bill 8, which was introduced by Yee and would make campus foundations and other operations, such as campus bookstores, to function under the California Public Records Act.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

California might spread light on university foundations

It looks like California is going to make a law requiring that foundations for public colleges and universities be subject to the state public records act. On Monday the state Assembly passed SB330, which now requires approval by the Senate and a signature by the governor. (See Associated Press story.)

Last year the governor vetoed similar legislation, fearing that donors wouldn’t want to give money if people knew their identity. So this year’s bill allows donors and volunteers to remain anonymous if they wish.

At least it’s a start. In most states, universities are allowed to create private foundations to funnel donations; Their own little slush funds to hide all sorts of corruption. For example, several years ago The (UCLA) Daily Bruin found that rich people were making big contributions to get their slacker relatives into competitive programs (see story from 2007). While this legislation will still make it easy for that kind of bribery to occur, at least people would be able to look at other ways the foundations are spending donor money (swanky fetes for donors and university officials, etc.).

Check out this legislation and get it passed in your state!

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