Maybe, it’s silly to make a list of people that I’d like to thank, as if I’ve won something. But every time I finish a story, I feel a huge sense of gratitude toward the people who I called many times and sent detailed emails with nit-picky questions and then called a few more times. (Hey, can you look in the planning document on page 57, line three? Am I understanding this correctly?) These busy people have important jobs, which I interrupt with frank and sometimes naive inquiries. It can be embarrassing. (What are the public trust recommendations anyway? But what do they mean? And two months later, I had an answer.) I ask for expertise on issues that my sources have spent the last 30 years grasping, and I end up calling them, again and again, because they are reliable, honest and ethical.
For this last story, it was Soil Scientist Chris Eacock, Economist Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Farmer John Diener, Water Policy Analyst Tom Stokely and Former Wall Street Journal Reporter Frank Allen. And that’s not to mention the specialists that I called several times, including Dr. Gary Banuelos, Dr. Dennis Lemly and Sheryl Carter.
“When will this be published?” they ask, after the fifth call.
“Soon,” I say. But I don’t immediately know the answer. The truth is—it will be published when the story takes shape and the puzzle pieces fall together. I start with a theory that either gets reinforced by research or destroyed by the data. Or I have a compelling question. In this case, I wondered, where is the selenium going on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley? It was such a problem in the 1980s with Kesterson, and I know there is still farming over there. I hadn’t realized that Westlands Water District is no longer the primary selenium polluter in terms of the San Joaquin River. It’s the Grasslands Districts instead. Westlands still has serious drainage issues, but they are different than I’d imagined and imply another series of issues, regarding water imports and exports. That’s another story.
Speaking of which, my stories are written with a slant. Yes, a clear angle. Underlying each article is a primary set of questions: How do we manage our natural resources so we can preserve California’s environment, farms and economy for the long term? What is the best way? What is fair?
In this last story, I didn’t get an exact answer, only another few data points. But with each sentence and paragraph, I inch my way toward understanding and I hope that my readers do too.