NMG’s Burke wins Best of the States for water expose

News Media Guild member Garance Burke won last week’s AP Best of the States award for uncovering multimillion dollar profits being made by some water owners amid California’s historic drought.

The San Francisco-based investigative reporter, a one-time Fresno correspondent who covered agricultural issues, discovered the price of water had jumped from $200 an acre-foot in 2009 to $2,200.

She persuaded several water districts and landowners who were legally selling their surplus to the highest bidders to talk to her about it. She also asked state and federal water managers about the sales, which included auctions, and learned they knew little about California’s private water sales.

While she interviewed those officials, Burke sought public records and data from them, and after weeks of negotiations, the agency turned records over to the AP. She found that more than 40 entities in California’s agricultural heartland are selling off their extra water this year, yet no government officials were tracking the spiking price of wate and its impact on thirsty cities.

Burke was able to calculate the maximum amount of water sold and found it was about a quarter of what the State Water Project delivers to urban and farming areas in an average year.

While she fought for public records, Burke consulted water experts who could discuss the government accountability issues her findings raised. One called for more regulations to keep water supplies from being depleted and to guard against manipulation like what happened during the energy crisis of 2001.

Until Burke’s story, the public was unaware that massive water sales, sometimes involving free public water, were being conducted throughout the Central Valley. The story appeared on the front pages of at least nine California papers.