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2016 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Killing the Colorado

 

About the Project

“Killing the Colorado” was the defining work of journalism on one of the nation’s most urgent issues: the water crisis in the American West.

Informed. Surprising. Damning. Engaging and enraging. Full of secrets and solutions.

The project amounted to a sophisticated and searing indictment of years of flawed public policy, at the local and national level both.

It dug out one scandal after another – from the enormous and baroque U.S. farm bill; from the ancient, long forgotten legislation governing water rights and landowners; from the musty archives of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which held every water use permit issued going back decades; from the EPA’s enforcement actions against the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona; and from NASA satellite data that showed that, for all the concern about the drought, states continue to mislead the public about how little water there actually is.

We used every tool at our disposal to make sure the project resonated online:
  • Stunning photography that rejected the typical view of the Colorado River as a bucolic wonder and showed it as it is: an overtaxed, high-tech plumbing system.
  • Extensive use of satellite imagery, paired with rich illustrations, that let readers follow the river from its source in the Rocky Mountains to what was once its outlet, now just parched villages near the Gulf of California. We invented (and open sourced) a system that automatically stitched cloud-free satellite images to create this.
  • A 3-D map of Las Vegas that let readers watch it grow faster than its water source could possibly support, all while Lake Mead to its East ebbs away.
  • A clever explainer video that explains the complexity of the problem, which extends from the snowpack on the Rockies to deep underground wells.
  • A series of conversations, “WaterTalk,” which paired experts in different aspects of the problem using Medium’s platform.

Because ProPublica allows its work to be republished for free, news organizations in Arizona ran several of the stories in full. Scientific American ran every one of them on its website. The Denver Post ran an editorial based on our reporting. The Los Angeles Times asked the reporter, Abrahm Lustgarten, to write an op-ed piece on the prospect of establishing a fair-value market for water as a properly understood commodity. The series even inspired the Discovery Channel to adapt “Killing the Colorado” into a feature documentary.

The full impact of the series will not be known for years. That’s how slowly America responds to crisis. But there can be little doubt that our work helped reset the terms of the debate about what that impact ought to look like. The series was, at its heart, a bracing dose of desperately needed honesty and self-examination.