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2017 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Draining Oregon

Finalist(s)
Kelly House, Mark Graves, Teresa Mahoney and Mark Friesen

Organization
The Oregonian / OregonLive

Award
Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom

Program
2017

Entry Links
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About the Project

Oregon is best known for its lush forests, snow-capped mountains and abundant rainfall. But east of the Cascades it’s a different story. Rain barely falls.

And in that vast region, the size of Connecticut, state officials are allowing groundwater to be pumped with reckless abandon.

The Oregonian/OregonLive analyzed three massive state databases to provide the only analysis of its kind detailing the growing problem. Even Oregon water officials hadn’t performed such a review.

If only they had.

Reporter Kelly House and data visualization specialist/photographer Mark Graves determined that the amount of water Oregon landowners are allowed to extract totals 1 trillion gallons annually – enough to fill 154 million tanker trucks. In some areas of eastern Oregon, annual water deficits exceed 50 billion gallons. The series title – “Draining Oregon” – couldn’t have been more apt.

Despite dire and continuous warnings from front line water regulators, supervisors kept blindly granting permit after permit. The relentless pumping fuels thousands of desert farms. But the unending churn comes with consequences. House and Graves discovered that over pumping Oregon’s underground reserves had dried up household wells and saddled farmers with huge costs to pump from ever-greater depths. It also has jeopardized about 650 species of animals and plants, including endangered salmon and steelhead populations. The impacts are so severe that springs in some rural areas have started to flow backward.

It’s easy to blow off what you can’t see. But “Draining Oregon” focused attention on decades of failed water policies. The reporting began in early 2015, when House got a tip that underground wells were starting to lose steam in the rural county that surrounds the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Months into her reporting, the state abruptly halted new permits in the basin. Regulators admitted they handed out more water rights than they should have. We wondered how this could occur. And was it happening anywhere else?

Indeed, it was. House and Graves traveled all over the state meeting with ranchers, fisherman, hydro-geologists and government officials. They used mapping software to analyze a massive, messy state database covering hundreds of thousands of water rights dating to the 1800s. They calculated the total volume farmers were entitled to pump. They then examined how much water federal geologists said was available in each region.