Covering the waterfront: Workshop gives tips for reporting on water systems

Water expert Joan Rose, left, and journalists and Lansing's Board of Water and LIght treatment plant. The mural depicts the power of water. Image: Eric Freedman

Water expert Joan Rose, right, and journalists at a Lansing water treatment plant. The mural depicts the power of water. Image: Eric Freedman

By Amanda Proscia
Control panels shaped like Oldsmobile sedan grills, car door handles for controls and hubcaps used as light fixtures set the scene for a recent Knight Center workshop on how to report about drinking water.
More than a dozen Michigan journalists and environmental communicators met recently at the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s John F. Dye Water Plant for the daylong workshop, “Beyond Flint: Reporting the Unreported Water Stories in Your Community.
It’s an unusual water plant with a design inspired by that city’s automotive history. And the walls feature murals depicting the beneficial and destructive potential of water, and another showing human control of nature and the importance of water that was painted by Charles Pollock, brother of the more famous artist Jackson Pollock.
Lights at the water plant were made to look like hubaps. Image: David Poulson

Lights at the water plant were made to look like hubaps. Image: David Poulson

The communicators came from diverse backgrounds including journalism, filmmaking and high school journalism education.
And the training had a near-immediate impact:
Crystal Proxmire, publisher of the Oakland County 115 News, credited the workshop and tour for helping her report a story soon afterward.
“I was able to catch a story that I don’t think anyone else has yet, and that I probably would not have noticed had I not gotten to hear your presentation,” Proxmire wrote in an email. “Plus it gave me a lot more confidence and context in writing about it.”
And Randy Scott said the workshop helped his high school students put the finishing touches on their second documentary about the water woes in Flint.
The Knight Center held the workshop in the wake of that highly publicized Flint water crisis – a public health contamination catastrophe that occurred when officials switched the city’s water source to the more acidic Flint River. Left untreated for the acidic condition, the river water corroded the city’s lead service pipes, causing the lead they contain to seep into tap water.
And while that was an unusual set of circumstances, experts say the infrastructure systems that deliver public drinking water elsewhere are undercovered by the press and potentially rife with stories.
“There are water stories in your own community — not just Flint,” Knight Center director Eric Freedman told the communicators as he opened the workshop.
After the tour, the group put down their hardhats and goggles and filed into a conference room
Water meters. Image: Amanda Proscia

Water meters. Image: Amanda Proscia

to listen to water expert Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and the 2016 winner of the international Stockholm Water Prize. Rose discussed possible threats other than lead found in water, like Pontiac Fever – a respiratory illness caused by legionella bacteria.
“Pontiac fever has the same symptoms as the flu, so it often goes underreported,” Rose said.
Janice Beecher, director of MSU’s Institute of Public Utilities, discussed water use, pricing and regulation.
Many water utilities fail to charge rates high enough to account for future capital infrastructure costs, she said.
Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and among the first reporters to break the Flint story, explained the multiple governmental breakdowns that led to international coverage of the crisis.
“You expect the government to tell you the truth,” he said. But that expectation proved to be unfounded.
“You’re not going to find everything you’re looking for on the computer or in databases. You have to go out and knock on doors,” Guyette said.
James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, discussed water-related issues that could affect Michigan in the future, such as crumbling infrastructure.
“It’s always science, money or politics,” Clift said of the motives for government decisions such as switching Flint’s water source to the Flint River.
Proxmire followed up her initial story on lead testing in Oakland Schools with reporting the testing plans of individual schools.  Scott said he is discussing expansion of his students’ efforts to other stories relevant to the Great Lakes region.
Lansing Board of Water and Light John F. Dye water plant. Image Amana Proscia

Lansing Board of Water and Light John F. Dye water plant. Image Amanda Proscia

“We knew there were unreported issue topics pertaining to water around the state — in small communities and large — and we wanted to give journalists and communicators the tools to cover those stories,” Freedman said.
“Also, we know newsrooms have fewer resources to train their own employees, so the Knight Center wanted to bring together experts to help fill that training gap.”
The presenters identified other underreported or unreported water-related topics, including the fact that testing of septic systems isn’t required, the amount of water withdrawn for agricultural use, water testing and closures at beaches, monitoring gaps for inland lakes, how utilities set water rates and the relationship between water leaks and energy use.
Reporting tips that came out of the workshop:

  • Hit the streets. Often the best way to find out what is going on is to talk to the people who drink the water instead of just politicians or engineers. If they are complaining, there is a problem. Even discolored or smelly water that is not health-threatening is a problem. Water should look and taste good.
  • Understand your water system. Take a tour, learn how it works. You may stumble over a story and you’ll certainly develop sources. It’s important to know what you’re writing about – preferably before a crisis.
  • Check consumer confidence reports. Water officials report to their customers a community’s water sources, the levels of contaminants and compliance with rules. Read them and ask about red flags.
  • Ask about testing protocols. Find out how your community tests water and run those techniques by an independent expert to see if it’s doing it right. If tests are proper and show no problems, reassure residents. If they’re not, you’ve got another story.
  • Find your lead service lines. The national lead copper rule requires communities to record the locations of lead service lines. If they don’t know, that’s a story. If they do know, report the hot spots and ask about plans to replace them. When will it happen? What will it cost? How will it be financed?
  • Ask for lead and copper sample results. Verify that testing took place in high-risk homes.
  • Annual reports are your friends. Fiscal reports are a good starting point. They may outline concerns. Read the footnotes. They often lead to other reports and studies.
  • Check audits. Read audit reports or information supporting bond proposals to expand or repair water systems. These may report how much water is produced and how much is sold. If a whole lot more is produced than sold, that may indicate an inefficient system with a lot of leaks.

The Knight Center hosted the event with MSU’s Water Science Network. The center is planning a fall workshop that will use the Grand River to examine how journalists can better report on issues related to rivers in general.

Design of control panels was inspired by the grills of Oldsmobile sedans. Image: David Poulson

Design of control panels inspired by the grills of Oldsmobile sedans. Image: David Poulson