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A reporter finds his best stories down by the river

A reporter finds his best stories down by the river

Picture of Ezra David  Romero
Kids play in the San Joaquin River. (Photo by Ezra David Romero/KVPR)
Kids play in the San Joaquin River. (Photo by Ezra David Romero/KVPR)

In Central California water is life. When rivers stop running, wells dry up and communities suffer. Perhaps the most compelling part of reporting a recent series about the health connections between rivers and the health of those that live around them was hearing from 72-year-old Donna Johnson, who told me that when the river near her house dried up, her neighbors began drinking water that was yellow and red.

For over six months Johnson — a retired horse trainer who moved to the San Joaquin Valley town of East Porterville over 25 years ago — hand-delivered water to over 300 families whose wells had gone dry. After hearing rumors of multiple private wells failing in her community and watching her own household well plummet to unmeasurable levels, Johnson decided to take the problem into her own hands. She feared the lack of water would escalate into a major health problem. The media took notice, but months and months afterwards, the hamlet is still dry.

In retrospect, reporting a series on rivers in the third of three drought years in California could have been a quixotic project, but the drought created the opportunity to share a new narrative about health in what we in Central California call the Valley: 10,000 square miles of desert turned into farmland and scattered cities.

I first came upon the idea for my “Healthy Rivers” series when I bumped into a woman wearing a sweater that read: “Bakersfield, a dry riverbed runs through it.” I began to wonder if there’s a direct link between the health of a community and the health of the river that runs through it.

My reporting focused on three different parts of Central California with three unique circumstances. Fresno, the city with the largest population in the region; Firebaugh, a town where people didn’t even know a river ran through it; and East Porterville, the valley community perhaps hit hardest by the drought.

The journey began just north of Fresno, where the San Joaquin River flows down from the Sierra Nevada into a reservoir. From there it’s split between the Friant-Kern Canal and the river’s alluvial fan. Usually during the heat of summer the river reduces to a trickle, but in 2014 the river flowed a foot above average because less water was stored in area reservoirs so that it could supply farmers and municipalities with water.

Reporting on the health dimensions proved a bit more difficult than expected, but as the region became drier, the stories became more and more evident. Last summer, while the water table was decreasing in some areas, the San Joaquin River was flowing a foot higher than normal. Dave Koehler, then the executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, and I canoed along the river, floating through 1,200 acres of public parkland blocked off from the rest of Fresno. The issue here is public access to natural areas, which can affect the health and well-being of local residents.

Fresno stands out from the rest of the region with a densely urban core and the lowest park-to-city ratio in the country. The city is plagued with health disparities and striking demographic differences across the city. It’s still unclear when this public land will open to the more than 500,000 people that live in Fresno. John Capitman with the Central Valley Health Policy Institute says, “We ought to think of resources like parks as something that is a resource for the whole community, not just for the residents that live right around them.”

But many still don’t think of local rivers as places that promote healthy living. A central question remains unresolved: Are they a resource for the community or are they only a means for agriculture and municipalities?

In this reporting series, I was only able to scratch the surface on the complex connections between rivers and community health. If I were to do the project over again, I would focus on one river and hold community meetings or roundtables on the river. These get-togethers could help gather ideas quickly and provide insights for story ideas. And doing more community engagement could’ve made my project that much better.

I’d encourage reporters working on similar projects to get out on the river you are writing about. Touch it. Explore it. Swim in it. Do most of your interviews on the river with the people that love it and hate it, because that will keep the stories focused on the river and the people who live on or near it.

The hardest part of my reporting journey was not the topic or content, but actually finding the characters for the stories. These people emerged throughout my reporting journey and surprised me. They weren’t who I thought they were going to be. Instead of the talking head or university professor, the best characters were the 10-year-old girl who didn’t know there was a river half a mile from her house, the ornery older man running a sports store who didn’t want public access in his neighborhood.

To report on how rivers affect the local community, decide to wade. Wade in the water of the river you’re reporting on. Wade, until your toes resemble raisins and then wade a little longer. It’s then that you’ll look up, the river will have calmed, and your story arc and characters will have presented themselves.

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