It would have been easy to frame this issue's cover story from just one viewpoint -- that of a dedicated environmentalist, say. It would have gone something like this: Profit-loving California farmers and voracious megacities are so greedy for water that they're destroying what's left of the once-sublime Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta ecosystem. Period.
It would have been equally easy to frame it from the viewpoint of a dedicated farmer or city water boss: Fish-loving environmentalists are so desperate to keep water in the Delta that they're destroying the lives of the people who depend on it.
It's always tempting to report a story like this dramatically and one-sidedly, with clear-cut heroes and obvious villains. Or to not report it at all: These days, most newspapers and other media simply lack the time and resources to cover something like the Delta in any depth. Only a very few news operations are able to dig into stories as complicated and decades-spanning as this one. As our cover story -- "California Dreamin' " -- demonstrates, High Country News remains one of the few. And it is not easy.
Author Matt Jenkins, an HCN contributing editor based in the Bay Area, has been researching and writing on Western water politics for nearly a decade, roaming from California farms and cities to Las Vegas and rural Nevada, Utah's Great Salt Lake, metro Phoenix, Southwestern Indian reservations, Colorado River reservoirs, the Northwest's Klamath and Deschutes rivers -- even down into Mexico. He spent months figuring out his latest take on the Delta.
Jenkins resists the temptation to make the story simple. He manages to frame it respectfully through the eyes of the various players, including farmers who disagree with each other and environmentalists who also disagree with each other. He notes how opinions and conditions have altered over time. Some environmentalists, for example, now believe that a proposal many condemned in the past -- building a huge new "Peripheral Canal" to tap a river upstream of the Delta -- might be acceptable. He deftly explains why it should matter to people outside California -- noting, for example, how it ties into the increasing push to reform or weaken the Endangered Species Act.
Ultimately, Jenkins asks us to ponder the uncomfortable reality that environmentalists -- and farmers and city-dwellers -- face in this era of political polarization and resource scarcity. There is no such thing as a clean victory. How much will the parties with a stake in the Delta have to compromise in order to get anything done?
A year ago, as Jenkins points out wryly, a 60 Minutes story just skimmed the surface of the Delta situation (with much of it even reported from a helicopter view). Jenkins, however, stays on the ground with his boots in the Delta's muck. We hope you find his story thought-provoking and look forward to your reactions.
--Ray Ring, senior editor