A rich all-formats package looks at a previously fertile basin in California and Oregon where water has slowed to a virtual trickle, pitting farmers and tribes against each other while facing a daunting future.
AP Portland, Oregon, reporter Gillian Flaccus has long followed a simmering issue in the Klamath River Basin, a swath of rural agricultural land in Northern California and southern Oregon that is ground zero for the fight over an increasingly precious resource in the American West: water.
Amid extreme drought in the region, the U.S. government has stopped irrigation to hundreds of farmers for the first time in history, while Native American tribes along the 257-mile Klamath River are watching fish species hover closer to extinction. Farmers face ruin and tribes that have lived in the area for thousands of years worry their culture will vanish. The situation is attracting anti-government activists trying to politicize a water crisis experts say could be a preview of what communities around the globe could face due to climate change.
Flaccus has developed deep sources with area farmers as well as tribal members and recently spent nearly a week in the remote area with freelance photographer Nathan Howard documenting an issue that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Collaborating with New York photo editor and digital storyteller Alyssa Goodman, they produced a sweeping, striking all-formats package that showed the pain on both sides as people begin to realize the water may not be coming back.
Flaccus and Howard traveled the length of the basin and spent time in the homes of farmers and walked the ancestral land of tribes, humanizing an issue that still seems abstract to many people far away from the drought-stricken West. “The system is crashing,” Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, which is monitoring a massive fish kill on the river, told Flaccus. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Flaccus also shot video and Howard used drone footage to give viewers a bird’s-eye look at the river and the people who have lived alongside it, never imagining it would stop yielding what they needed most. Flaccus worked with colleagues in graphics to produce a map to augment the visuals, while Goodman produced the presentation, weaving the text, photos, video and graphics into a powerful package.
The resulting piece was among AP’s top five most-viewed stories for Friday. Deputy Managing Editor Amanda Barrett said: “Such a powerful story amid the heat and fire calamities happening at the same time. The voices of the different constituencies and their perspectives are interwoven with amazing visuals. I could have looked at them all day.”
For immersive journalism that explores the human consequences of drought in the U.S. West, Flaccus, Howard and Goodman receive this week’s Best of the States award.