Drought and media bias

Tom Curwen has a great story in today’s Los Angeles Times of the sort that I’d like to see more of – beyond “OMG California is toast” drought coverage to look at what works in the state’s water management, what sort of adaptive capacity exists in the places where water is not running out. Which, it turns out and breathless headlines notwithstanding, is much of the state:

National headlines ask: “The End of California?” News stories track the diminishing snowpack and disappearing reservoirs, and a small fish in the Delta is scapegoated, almond growers and consumers are shamed and the mythology of Western resolve is questioned.

The crisis has led many to wonder whether the state has lost its historic resilience.

But the drama hides reality and for those who have studied California’s long relationship with its water, the drought is serious but hardly a disaster.

“The sky is not falling,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

Scary drought map that feeds the "bad news" meme

Scary drought map that feeds the “bad news” meme, only it really is bad!

Distance from my former career (newspaper journalism) has made more obvious something that bothered me while I was in it – the bias toward the bad. The incentives are deeply embedded in the newsroom culture – the knowledge that “gotcha” and failings and trouble are more likely to get you onto the front page, which is the currency of newsroom status (if not financial reward – the jobs mostly pay shit). A friend today shared an interesting bit of research that offers (for me, at least) a fresh explanation. It’s “You get what you want: A note on the economics of bad news“, by Jill McCluskey and colleagues (Information Economics and Policy Volume 30, March 2015):

In a framework where news is informative and consumers are risk averse, diminishing marginal utility implies that information about a negative income shock is more valuable than information about a positive shock, which leads to disproportionate reporting of bad news.

Seems like a reasonable model that could explain a quip from one of my editors that always bothered me: “We don’t write about planes that don’t crash.” I get that writing about the planes that crash is really important, diminishing marginal utility of information and all, but the fact that most planes don’t crash seems important as well. To only write about the crashing ones is to mislead.

Matt Stevens of the Los Angeles Times, who’s been doing a lot of really good drought coverage, had a viral story last month that captured the dilemma – California water officials deliver sobering facts on depleted wells. State water officials had told legislators that 1,900 California wells had gone dry. As has happened repeatedly in California drought coverage, Stevens zeros in on Tulare County, in California’s Central Valley:

More than half of the dry wells are in Tulare County, southeast of Fresno, state officials said. Most of the dry wells there are within the community of East Porterville, where hundreds of residents have gone without running water and volunteers have delivered emergency supplies.

But Stevens also points out that California has between 1 million and 2 million wells. So (contrary to a Times copy editor’s mistaken math) somewhere between 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent of California’s wells haven’t gone dry. I’ve talked about the Porterville problem before (and before that, when it was drought in Texas in 2012, the Spicewood Beach problem – if there’s just one place running out water, it’ll get a lot of media attention). Don’t get me wrong. If I was in California doing journalism, I’d be doing Porterville. In New Mexico in 2013, I wrote about Maxwell, which was our East Porterville/Spicewood Beach. But in retrospect, I realized I’d done it badly, and felt a need to come back and write another story to clean up the mess.

The question of what is going right, or at least not going wrong, in those 99-plus percent of not-dry wells seems like a critical question. What distinguishes East Porterville from the many other Central Valley communities that haven’t run out of water?

Curwen’s story offers a version of this, taking readers down into the weeds to understand the formation of the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority, one of a zillion institutional widgets that have evolved over the years to manage California’s increasingly scarce supplies of water. Things are tight everywhere in California, but most places where the water is not running out, which are most places in California, have a story like the Santa Ana.

It is in those myriad details that we’ll understand where future failures loom and how to avoid the next East Porterville.


  1. John, not sure what you’ve been smoking but I guess NM is one of THOSE states. The real story today is the groundwater plane that crashed in central California. The second most cited journalistic editorial of all time (after yes virginia there is a santa claus) is Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. The link below goes to the 1968 original.

    The Times story describes a whole new chapter in impotent unempowered groundwater regulatory institutions (oxymoron alert) and the utter lack of resiliency in laissez-faire capitalism (which desperately needs a government nanny to step in).

    Here a wealthy almond grower/exporter from India ($383,987 in EWG subsidies, $14 million annual sales, $8 million 2nd home in Pebble Beach) in a mad race with his neighbors to create water table subsidence (inadvertently of course) so the San Luis canal won’t flow to a distant wealthy alfalfa grower/exporter ($11,522,057 in USDA subsidies, $3.7 million annual profit on $25 sales) and neighbors with the ultimate senior water rights.

    And the public is supposed to take a bath — a sponge bath — so these avaricious clowns can continue what they know full well is a race to the bottom: reckless and irreversible depletion of groundwater. And where is the public benefit when 80% of these crops are exported to Asia?

    Very fine USGS map of subsidence and a great quotes from Jay Famiglietti:

    “California passed stronger regulations last year but the rules won’t have any real effect for 25 years or more, says Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA JPL. “You drill a well on your property, you draw it out, even if it means you draw from under your neighbor’s property,” he says. “You’re drawing water from every direction.” In a normal year, Mr. Famiglietti says, 33 percent of California’s water comes from underground, but this year it is expected to approach 75 percent. Since 2011, he says, the state has lost eight trillion gallons from its overall water reserves, two-thirds of that from its underground aquifers.

    “We can’t keep doing this,” Mr. Famiglietti says. [It’s Dr. Famiglietti, Princeton ’92 for consistency, if your newspaper insists on Dr Kissinger).



  2. Tom –

    Thanks for the comment. I’m hoping we can walk and chew gum at the same time here, by which I mean to suggest that yes, the race to the bottom in the Central Valley is a problem, and yes, the kind of thing Curwen describes has proven successful in addressing such problems, and the question is why this has succeeded in some places and failed in others. There’s no denying that there are many places in California that aren’t involved in a Tulare Basin-style race to the bottom. That’s precisely the reason I describe the need to understand both the places running out of water but also the far larger number of places that aren’t. A journalism that only describes the failure without also exploring the successes isn’t helping.

    I’m familiar with Hardin – I’ll be adding to his citation in my book, in a chapter about Hardin and Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel prize in economics for essentially showing the critical ways in which Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” argument missed a crucial point. In fact, as the work of Ostrom and her colleagues show, the sort of thing Curwen is describing is (the Santa Ana River Watershed was one of their case studies) *does* work, and has been shown to repeatedly work around the world to overcome the kind of problem Hardin describes in ways that Hardin misunderstood completely. This is solid, empirical work by Ostrom and her army of collaborators on a host of different common pool resource management regimes. That doesn’t mean that there are not places in California that are not involved in a race to the bottom. Richtel’s NYT piece shows that, and part of the importance of the work of Ostrom and her colleagues is identifying the characteristics of that which works and that which doesn’t in solving the problem Richtel describes. The question is how we identify those places where common pool resource management has been successful (which is precisely what Curwen does so well in this piece), that we might learn from those examples, and how they differ from the sort of places Richtel describes.

    Previously: https://www.inkstain.net/fleck/2013/09/california-groundwater-bring-on-the-social-scientists/

  3. Cox, M., G. Arnold, and S. Villamayor Tomás. 2010. A review of design principles for community-based
    natural resource management. Ecology and Society 15(4): 38. [online] URL: http://www.

    Elinor Ostrom.A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. PNAS September 25, 2007 vol. 104 no. 39 15181–15187

    I wonder whether the question is better framed as how we discover the common characteristics shared by successful CPR governance institutions and apply those in reforming existing ones. Ostrom’s design principles are pretty well supported empirically (Cox et al. above). More systematic (as well as journalistic) work is needed.

  4. I have been skeptical about IRWM, primarily on two grounds. First, that it is just a way for centralized state actors to duck the problem (much like the new gw agencies). Second, what I usually hear in the field is that locals will do this for the state money but wouldn’t do it if it weren’t paid for by someone else. They don’t see additional benefit besides the state funds. Oh. My third critique is that generally, the IRWM plans are written by consultants, so there aren’t people in the districts themselves that believe. When the consultant is gone, there is no institutional emotional investment.

    So far as I know, the only academic study of CA IRWM is Mark Lubell’s, and it showed that IRWM was just a new forum for Bay Area practitioners to bicker. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1450813

    The critiques of that study said that it was early days (2009), they were in the “storming” phase of working together and everyone knows that the Bay Area IRWM was a contentious one.

    If there is newer study, I don’t know it (and would love to see it). If I thought IRWM worked, I would also think that it is the best way forward. But I am not convinced that it works without Other People’s Money.

  5. John B,

    Those are two documents that should be read by every public policy/planning student/professional.
    Would Ostrom agree that mechanisms for success in one project can be borrowed by another project?

    John F,

    Recently, we talked about the survival of doom and gloom about water in the Darwinian world of ideas. This article gets at this, and keeps this concept in my mind for future study.

  6. My partner suggested that we no longer buy bottled water sourced in CA. I now have this weird feeling of guilt.

  7. Oh, I guess I wasn’t clear about why I was talking about IRWM. The Santa Ana River Watershed Authority Project is often held up as a model for IRWM.

  8. OtPR – Thanks, yes, that had left me confused, but I guessed that was the case. Some discussion somewhere (maybe on the twitter?) led me to conclude that it might not be the best example of IRWM because of the already-existing social/institutional capital on which IRWM was able to build there.

    Dustin Garrick, in a separate conversation, shared a more recent paper looking at IRWM, which seems to conclude “still to early to know, maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t”: http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=c1210

    Hughes S, Pincetl S, 2014, “Evaluating collaborative institutions in context: the case of regional water management in southern California” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 32(1) 20 – 38

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