2022 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Lessons Learned: Drought Then and Now

About the Project

In his 1952 novel “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck depicted the yin and yang of California’s water cycle in the Salinas Valley where he grew up, how the bounty of the wet years drove out memories of the dry, until, predictably, the water wheel came back around. “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

But droughts and water shortages are more of a persistent way of life now in California than a mere cycle. The rare has become the routine.

As California entered the grips of another severe drought in the spring of 2021, CalMatters launched “Lessons Learned: Drought Then and Now,” a richly detailed ongoing series investigating whether the situation has improved or worsened.

Californians recall the last drought — four devastating, record-breaking years: They couldn’t water their lawns much. Cities hired water cops and people turned in their neighbors. Rural towns ran out of water. Crops dried up in fields. Ranchers sold their herds.

Now the situation is even worse. About 85% of California is again experiencing extreme drought, “a designation that only hints at the trickle down of impacts on people, the environment and the economy. Nature’s orderly seasons are upended,” wrote reporters Julie Cart and Rachel Becker.

They scoured state databases and queried scores of local water agencies to explore the number of wells that have dried up, and locate areas where the impact of drought has spread. The deep fragmentation of California’s water system means that there’s no one source to go to on California water; the thousands of public water systems in California each have their own story, requiring the reporters to reach far and wide to understand vastly different conditions across the state. During the course of our reporting we found that the absence of data — real measurement of California’s water resources, who uses them and how much — was its own story. It became a fundamental revelation. As experts told us: You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

The stakes are high. But one example: One out of 10 residents of rural Tulare County is designated as “water insecure” — meaning their drinking water supply is unreliable or nonexistent. And as our reporting noted, “For those whose fortunes depend on water, the debilitating drought of the last decade has been a bleak time. Suicide hotline numbers are listed on the webpage of Tulare County’s Agriculture Commission alongside the annual crop reports.”

Other multimedia contributions to the project included a video by reporter Byrhonda Lyons exposing the emergence of water bandits stealing a newly scarce commodity, a card deck explainer “Danger in Droughtsville” to help our audience understand the challenges of water planning, and the most comprehensive dashboard yet chocked full of data on California’s water supply amid drought.