How Circle of Blue investigated freshwater issues in Texas

Behind the scenes, Climate Journalism Lab, Interviews
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While 70% of our planet’s surface is covered in water, only 3% of it is fresh water – and most of that is packed away in glaciers and polar ice caps, out of human reach. The limited freshwater resources that we do have access to — groundwater, lakes, rivers and ponds — are shrinking under the stress of human population, climate change, and pollution, which makes the need for timely, wise and efficient decisions regarding water management increasingly critical. 

Circle of Blue, a non-profit, independent science and news agency has been covering freshwater issues on a global scale with the goal of surfacing the information necessary to steer decision making. Circle of Blue’s latest project, “Water, Texas,” dives deep into the major players shaping the state’s water and the ways in which they affect its freshwater resources and inhabitants. Each story of the five-part series focuses on a specific region in Texas and is supplemented with a podcast and expressive photographs and videos. 

“Right now, we are at a critical moment for Texas as it struggles with a big sea change with the energy sector, with prices dropping to the bottom, droughts, hurricanes and other natural forces,” Carl Ganter, co-founder and director of Circle of Blue, told Storybench. “How is this going to shape Texas’ economy, environment and social structure?”

Storybench spoke with Carl Ganter about the inspiration behind “Water, Texas,” how his team chose the five challenges to cover, and his take on the future of digital storytelling.

Could you give me some background on Circle of Blue? 

What we try to do at Circle of Blue is really tell what we believe to be the most important stories at this intersection of water, food and energy, particularly in a changing climate. We say that everywhere, but we really do mean it. These are complicated stories. Oftentimes, we stumble into a big story by just starting with some small stories. 

For example, in China, we wanted to ask some simple questions. Sometimes, the most important stories come from really simple questions. We wanted to know if China had enough water to continue mining and processing coal at current rates, because the conventional wisdom was that China was a coal-fired society—their entire GDP was fueled by coal. 

We had four separate teams across China and we also formed partnerships with Chinese universities and two US universities for research, we had this exchange balance going on. We went to the mills, the coal mines, and the statistics bureaus. When we talk about data driven journalism, sometimes it is really clear and sometimes it isn’t. You literally have to go and find somebody who has a printed book of statistics. That is often true in China and India and other developing nations or in nations that are bringing their natural resources online, so to speak. So the assumptions that data is easy to get…you have to throw that out the window. 

We created a simple but a really effective process. If you are drawing a circle on a whiteboard, you start with a question at the top. And then, depending on the nature of the question, you start with reporting the journalism both remotely and on the ground. On-the-ground [reporting] is really important to us. Then, we add the science part. So we talk to the scientists and say, What direction are we headed? What is the general gist here? So we are better educated when we are digging into the story. Then we mention the data—I already talked about that. But journalism is oftentimes more contextual reporting. [That is] the journalism, the science, and the data part. As for designing and thinking about a story, whether it is Texas or China, we also think about, Who is the audience?

We are not advocates; we are not an advocacy organization or a news organization. But we are doing, we believe, important work, we hope. So, if that work is going to make a difference, if that is going to inform people, Who do you need to inform? In China, it might have been the water minister, the ambassador, [or] the heads of major companies. Then, we want to make sure that they read our work. 

So journalism, science, data, communication design: Who do we want to reach and how? Do we want to reach them through a radio program? Do we want to reach them through online, traditional [reporting]? Do we want to reach them through a piece of printed material that we take to, say, the World Economic Forum or to a conference somewhere?

Then the closing part of the circle (remember we’d started with a question mark on top), going all the way around is the convening. Convening is really important for complicated stories. Whether it is starting, learning and listening to what people are working on or not, but also making sure that the work that we do does have an impact. So, we can be the neutral convenors without an agenda but with strong reporting. 

Back to China…we did what started with one story and ended up with, I think, 18 stories. We were able to find that… No, China doesn’t have enough water to continue mining and processing coal at current rates. Huge risks to their GDP growth and to the coal industry, just because they do not have enough water to mine it (it takes a lot of water to mine it). Those findings were pretty significant. So we did presentations to the water minister in China—that’s [a] cabinet level position. We did the entire US embassy staff in their auditorium in Beijing. We also did the heads of major multinational companies in Shanghai and we did the Yellow River Commission in China and I think we had 1200 people come to our event to see basically our pictures, our Powerpoint slides: What has Circle of Blue found?

Then, all that around to kind of the impact part when President Obama and President Xi met for their climate agreement—this was just before [the] Paris [Agreement]—they added to their agenda two points on water and energy. So the State Department then said, Hey, we are reading your work! Take a look. That is the kind of the ultimate and it was for that circle—it is basically creating a cumulative feedback loop. That’s the whole idea. 

Journalism can come in many different pieces. It can come in stories in audio, pictures, video. Same thing with data—data can be images, streaming data, it can be historic data, it can be analog. Data comes in many, many different flavors. So that is our operating system—it is this feedback loop. So then we go all the way around and then you ask another big question: What did we miss? We ended up doing two full cycles in China that way. We went all the way around the circle twice.

What inspired “Water, Texas?”

Texas is such a big state. It is such an important state both for water and energy. And agriculture, of course. We wanted to have a look at, What is this nexus and this relationship between water and energy in Texas?… because right now, we are seeing that cities, civilizations and governments around the world are being defined by how they manage their water supplies. 

Right now, we are at a critical moment for Texas as it struggles with a big sea change with the energy sector, prices dropping to the bottom, droughts, hurricanes and other natural forces. How is this going to reshape Texas’ economy, environment and social structure?

Is that why you chose Texas over other states?

Yeah, it is just such a dynamic, big situation and it really fits within the Texas border. It also, of course, touches Mexico.

In the five-part series, each article focuses on a very specific problem in a specific place. How did you choose which challenges to cover? 

Good question. One of the rules in journalism or writing is: just start. Be as informed as you can, pick what your resources allow you [about] where you can start and how you can learn the most. That is how we started with “Water, Texas.”

In the water space, if anyone tells you that they are done, or that they have already done water, [then] they have no idea what they are talking about. Water is among the biggest stories on the planet in the intersection between water, food and energy in the changing climate. That is the big story. You could make it impossible and try to write one huge piece, or you could create a journey. 

We have created five touchpoints and we have learned so much and more that we can go back and keep covering it because we think that Texas is one of these pivotal locations in the world, particularly in the US. Of course, California, with how it manages its water and it is a very complex system in the Colorado river in the American west and the Great Lakes. But then, when you look at Texas being an epicenter, California, central US, [and the] Great Lakes, you also look at other major cities, regions, and river basins around the world that have really grand challenges. 

What has the reader response been like? 

The reader response has been really good. You never know and that is why we try to write really interesting stories that capture the reader’s attention. That is why we like to do place-based journalism. Meaning, You have to go there and you have to put it in context. Otherwise, we are just writing about an issue without a heartfelt relevancy. We’ve always had great feedback from social media. 

You might also listen to a piece on the Texas Standard, which is a radio program carried on, I think, 33 NPR stations across Texas. The response is great and I think that people are learning something and realizing that these are really important issues. When they do come to the fore, either in an emergency situation or in a longer term policy planning situation, we will have brought some new voices to the table and also been able to educate so the most informed decisions can be made.

The collisions of environmental and political interests seem to be a common occurrence worldwide.

Yeah, it seems so. A lot of people focus on technology solutions for the water crisis. We have most of the technologies we need. What we need is the political will and the governance in order to implement at scale.

It looks like we know the problem and the solution. Where are we falling short? 

Again, it’s the same in Texas or even the Great Lakes. We need educated people who are not only taking action on their own [in] small ways but also who are holding their leaders accountable for preparation for drought and flood, for managing water systems, investing properly in municipal systems, investing in storm-water treatment and run-off in the right way. 

It gets complicated and expensive quickly. But, by not acting, the expenses, as we already see, can be huge. So, it truly is an awareness to action [that] is probably the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. Getting people involved so they know where their water is coming from. And they know how it’s used, they know what the value is, meaning, Is the water free? Is it not? How much do I pay? Is it a good deal?… knowing that water actually has value. Those are some of the big pieces that we have to overcome. Those are the big stories.

What is your take on digital storytelling and where it is headed?

I used to teach digital storytelling at the Poynter Institute. So look out, it probably means that I am outdated. But I think that with digital journalism and storytelling, we always need to step back and say, What is the story we want to tell?—number one. And then, basically that circle I was talking about, What is the story you need to tell? Who needs to see it? What do they need to learn? What is going to be their best way to learn? One way could be an exhibit of photographs taken by a great photographer with captions that capture your intention. It is really important to start with that core question and then figure out which tools you need to tell that story. 

In our next round in Texas, we would definitely do a lot more video. It would be a great spot and a great opportunity to do a documentary. But now, everything is cumulative. I think that is another thing that with our era with digital storytelling is that we should be really thinking about, How do we multiply our work and the work of others? What is that forced multiplication? If that does not make sense then what that means is, one—How do we honor the work of others?, which we can do more than ever now. Journalism can be a very siloed space, because [the story is] not invented here, that wasn’t our story…that’s changing. I think with digital storytelling also back to that core question, particularly today, it is really important to think about even big feature stories with an investigative angle because there is so much that we can build on. That might not work for the first story or the second story or the fifth story; it might be the tenth story, but we are really starting to understand the complex systems. One last point on digital storytelling too, we have the opportunity whether it is through information infographics, videos, dashboards, whatever else of telling a systems story. Rather than just say one off or a couple or a handful of stories, we are able to actually step back and look and see, OK, these are the players, this really dissects the complexity.

Sharmila Kuthunur
Sharmila is a graduate student at Northeastern’s School of Journalism.

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