Tom Gorman conquers journalism’s dullest subject
Anybody wanna write a water story?
Of course not.
Tom Gorman didn’t want to, either.
But Tom is a resourceful guy who understands one of the great truths about life as a general-assignment reporter: You must perform as well on other people’s ideas as you do on your own. you are never in total (some would say even partial) control of your life. Problems and challenges abound. The only thing you control in these moments is how to solve the problem, how you summon the necessary enthusiasm.
Tom graciously wrote a lengthy analysis of how he worked his way out of an icky water assignment. I think you’ll enjoy its detail because (a) it takes you through the denial and resentment we all begin these assignments with, and (b) it is the only time I’ve seen a reporter seriously consider starting a news feature with a scenario based on a character from “The Simpsons.”
Read the first 20 grafs of the 2,200-word story to get in rhythm, then we’ll give the stage to Tom and conclude with the rest of the piece:
MWD BUILDS RESERVOIR OF GOODWILL
April 12, 1993
HEMET, California–Just imagine the reaction in the executive board room when the boss pitched this project:
Let’s build the largest lake in Southern California. It’ll cost more than $2 billion-with-a-B. It’ll hold enough water to serve everyone from Santa Monica to San Diego for five months.
This lake will require not one, not two, but three dams. The valley’s farmlands will be under 250 feet of water; the endangered Stephens’ kangaroo rats that live there will be wiped out, but don’t worry: We’re pretty sure the threatened gnatcatcher will manage to fly to higher ground.
The Sierra Club will love us, the federal government will love us, and we’ll end up environmental heroes.
Of course, we’ll have to kick off the farmers who live there now, and the area is rich with American Indian artifacts.
But at least Southern California will have water.
A preposterous scenario? Hardly.
That very project is under way by Southern California’s mother water agency, the Metropolitan Water District, on thousands of acres of onion and wheat fields a few miles southwest of here.
It will be the largest and most important water facility ever constructed by the MWD, whose job is to ensure that Southern California has water, come drought or come earthquake.
The reservoir will almost double the amount of water stored aboveground in Southern California. It will be larger in size than the Southland’s six regional reservoirs combined: the state’s Castaic, Pyramid, Perris and Silverwood lakes, and the MWD’s Lake Mathews and Lake Skinner.
When completed around the turn of the century, the reservoir will guarantee water delivery to its customers for five months should the aqueducts and canals that carry water here from Northern California and the Colorado River be cut off by a cataclysmic temblor along the San Andreas Fault.
And should Southern California face another drought requiring rationing, the new reservoir could serve MWD’s 27 public agency customers for two to three years if its water is meted out carefully.
It is that big. And it will cost about $1.5 billion, plus another $750 million or so to construct the related pipelines to distribute the water. In time, the cost will trickle down to the average residential customer in terms of about a $2-or-so increase in the monthly water bill, said Bert Becker, assistant director of finance for the MWD.
Officials say it is well worth it, the cost of providing water in a desert.
“In terms of a physical project and its effect on the reliability of Southern California’s water supply, this is our single most important project,” beamed Carl Boronkay, who first raised the need for the reservoir in 1984 and who recently retired as MWD’s general manager.
And the amazing thing is, the MWD has moved forward with the huge project with nary a ripple of dissent from environmentalists, state and federal regulatory agencies, local governments and nearby tribal councils who value the site as a rich repository of treasured American Indian artifacts.
About the only ones voicing protest are some of the residents in the valley who complain that they are being offered river-bottom farmland prices for property far more valuable in years ahead as California’s newest neighborhoods.
“The way they’re treating us would upset anybody,” grouses patriarch Francis Domenigoni, 81, whose grandfather settled the area 100 years ago and gave the valley its name.
The argument over property values notwithstanding, the plans to build the reservoir could be a model for future public works projects because of its success in handling a myriad of environmental issues.
The MWD’s strategy: Find a site with the least number of potential environmental pitfalls to begin with, spend tens of millions of dollars to develop more off-site nature reserves than required by state law, hire archeologists to comb the fields and hillsides in search of human artifacts, and work with local American Indians in relocating and preserving the archeological discoveries.
Tom, now the Las Vegas bureau chief for my newspaper, broke it down this way:
I took over the Riverside-San Bernardino bureau (about 50 miles east of downtown L.A.) a half-year before this story ran. Having spent the previous 15 years in the San Diego County Edition, where stories were no longer new and fresh, I was gleefully awash in a sea of gee-whiz story ideas. Here I was, with a huge beat and everything was exciting and new to me. In no time at all, I had developed a list of fun stories.
Then the other shoe dropped.
My editor, Cindi Craft on the state desk, told me she wanted a story on the Metropolitan Water District’s plans to build a huge water reservoir n ear Hemet.
C’mon, Cindi, I thought to myself. Yeah, I’d do it. But of all the stories out there, why one of the most boring, bureaucratic stories around–a water reservoir? Sheesh.
I hate bureaucracy, and I bet most readers do, too. I hate water stories because, hell, I’ve always gotten water out of my tap. We had survived the drought, thank you. Besides, this reservoir wouldn’t even be operating for another five years. Talk about an advance story!
Making matters worse, Jenifer Warren, who worked this bureau a couple of years before me, said she had specifically dodged the MWD reservoir story for the same reason I wanted to: Booorrring!
Still, I was new on this beat and didn’t want to anger my editor from the get-go, so I knuckled under. Besides, Cindi said, ”Do it right and it can go on A-1.” Okay, I’m sold…
The first thing I had to do was define a story that I could buy into. One of the local papers talked of the rich repository of Native American artifacts, something that the MWD was sensitive to. That was the story my editor had clipped for me to follow, from a local paper. (In bureaus, this is known as a bureau rip-off: scan the local papers for feature ideas.)
I wanted to stay clear of water politics. We had writers in the L.A. office who do those kinds of stories–Dean Murphy (statewide water issues) and Fred Muir (MWD). I didn’t want to tromp on their expertise, especially since I didn’t have any at all. Nor did I want to embarrass the paper by writing on specific water-politics issues which I had no background (or interest).
So I decided to focus on the more basic question: In this era of Environmental Impact Reports, and of how the smallest of developments seem to stub their toes on environmental roadblocks, how in the hell could the MWD get away with building a huge reservoir–the largest lake in Southern California–and manage to actually win support for it, even from the state, the feds, and the Sierra Club? It didn’t matter to me if they were going to build a reservoir, a huge nest or a regional airport, the theme was the same: How could a public agency, in this day and age, successfully manage to build such a mammoth project with apparently nary a riple of opposition?
First off, I had the MWD fax me background on the reservoir planning: its approval, its planning, its goals. Nuts and bolts stuff.
Next, I asked them to take me on a tour of the site, so I could eye-ball it. What was I writing about? I had to see it, smell it, picture it in my mind’s eye for later when I sat at the keyboard. (I revisited the site a second time, with a photographer, and observed his own reactions to the project.)
I was told there was virtually no opposition to it, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being manipulated by the MWD into writing a warm-fuzzy, only to find out later, by angry letters-to-the-editor, that I had missed some controversy. Surely, someone must be opposed to it, right?
I baited the MWD and they acknowledged that, well, there were some homeowners who weren’t too happy with it. After having spent several hours with MWD p.r. people, we built a confidence and they told me which homeowners in the Hemet valley were opposed to the lake. I’d interview them later.
But what about environmentalists? I asked environmental writer Maria La Ganga to shoot me names of environmental groups, and she gave me a bunch. I called them all, not wanting to miss one group or another that had some problem with the reservoir’s construction. To cover my butt, I called the national, regional and local offices of the Sierra Club. It turned out I couldn’t find a single environmental group opposed to the reservoir’s construction, and some actually sang its praises.
Whew. That made my job easier. This wouldn’t have to be a back-and-forth adversarial article pitting a bureaucracy against the environmentalists. In fact, the environmental groups’ support of the project made my premise hold up. This is an amazing project!
As for the homeowners, I tracked down the one long-established family for whom the valley has its name, the Domenigoni family. Even they conceded the need for the reservoir, and were upset only that they might not get fair market value for their property. Well, I could easily deal with that in a few paragraphs.
Finally, I had to address the archaeology issue, and whether the Native Americans in Riverside County had problems with the fact that their one-time homeland would be under 250 feet of water. I tracked down tribal officers from the two nearest reservations. I interviewed one by phone, and met another one for lunch at a local Sizzler. (I love to eat at company expense as often as possible.)
The Native Americans said they had some concerns, which the MWD seemed to be addressing, but they acknowledged that the MWD was in the driver’s seat in developing the reservoir, and that all they (the Indians) could do was beg that as many artifacts as possible be preserved. The MWD had agreed to do that, so even the Native Americans weren’t battling this project to a high degree.
So: I’ve talked to the environmentalists, the Native Americans, a local property owner, the MWD and the state and federal agencies.
Now, the big challenge: How do I write this in an interesting fashion; how do I present a bureaucratic/environmental story with interest, if there is no flash-point controversy at stake?
Maybe that was the theme of my article, my wife suggested at 1 in the morning as I lay in bed, mumbling to myself. My wife advised me, ”You know, Tom, the fact that nobody is really upset with a project of this size may, itself, be the angle! You don’t always have to write about conflict.”
I thought of some formula leads: ”HEMET–Plans for a huge reservoir near here are meeting few objections…” Blah. If there’s no conflict, why read the story?
I had to hit it harder, the lack of conflict over such a huge project. I capsulized in my mind the huge scope of the reservoir project, and marveled that there were virtually no objections to it. I had to present the size and scope of the project very quickly, why it was so important to Southern California, and the amazing fact that there were no objections. How could the MWD have ever hoped to carry off such a project when it first had the idea years ago?
This called for a different approach. What if I were to go back in time, in a fictional sense, and be a bug on the wall when the MWD boss pitched the project to his directors in just a few sentences. Surely it would have sounded remarkable. I wanted the reader to sense a bit of what the MWD directors might have thought to themselves: ”Yeah, right, we’re going to pull this off?”
Of course, I’d be condensing years of planning into a few paragraphs, but if I presented it right, it could work.
I came up with a draft lede, where I could describe the project quickly and hint that the reaction to it might have been incredulous at the time. I even made up the name of my fictitious MWD boss, Mr. Burns. (Thanks to my love for ‘ ‘The Simpsons.”) I’d set the lead off in italics, so the reader would realize there was something a little phony here.
I wrote this:
HEMET–Just imagine a conversation in an executive board room going something like this:
”Gentlemen,” says Mr. Burns, clearing his throat. ”We’re going to build the largest lake in Southern California. It’ll cost more than a billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. It’ll hold enough water to serve everyone from Santa Monica to San Diego for five months!”
The directors look around at one another.
”We’ve found a valley we can flood, but first we get to build three dams,” Burns says excitedly.
”What’s the Sierra Club gonna say about this?” someone asks nervously, shuffling his papers.
”Oh, they’ll love it,” Burns says, pulling a drag from his stogie.
And so on. I carried this fictious conversation for a few more graphs before ending the italics and getting to the nut grafs.
Cindi liked the approach, but worried that making up fictious quotes and fictious names was going a little too far for Page 1. I mean, what if someone thought this conversation was really held, exactly as we were presenting it? So we worked a compromise: I’d make up fictitious paraphrases. That, she said, would work, because it was a little softer. No phony names, no phony quotation marks.
I knew this style was a little unusual, but I decided: What the hell? If it snags the reader, isn’t that the goal? The mere use of the italics helped the story stand out as something different, and could be a good gimmick in snaring the reader.
Once I got past the opening, it was simple writing. Unlike John Glionna, who I’ve seen frame a story on his screen in outline fashion, then plug in the quotes and facts as he moves forward, I tend to frame the story in my mind, laying out in the most general fashion the issues I need to address, and plotting transitions to get me from one issue to the next.
I would recap the project, then hit the various issues one by one: Why was the project necessary to begin with? Hit, up high, the fact that there was little opposition to it. Then get into why Domenigoni Valley was specifically selected for this reservoir, describe the physical characteristics of the reservoir, how the MWD would deal with the environmental issues, the concerns by the Domenigno family (as representative of homeowners in the area), the concerns of the Native Americans and how they were appeased, and finish with the archaeologists talking about what a marvelous job the MWD had done. There, a full-circle.
This story was coming in at around 60-70”. I constantly had to tell myself to avoid the politics of the water project itself. Hell, the decision to build the reservoir was made back in 1991, so I didn’t need to recreate that particular debate. It was a done deal.
I wouldn’t get into water rates, except to note that the reservoir project would cost people about $2 a month in future years. I wouldn’t get into water delivery infrastructure. Those were issues better handled by other writers. I had to simply focus on the physical construction of the reservoir in a farm valley, period, and how the MWD had managed to pull off this project in this environmentally-sensitive age we live in.
(Indeed, after the story ran, I got calls from two or three people angry that I had not gotten into the issue of water politics, water rates and all that. I did the sophisticated, intelligent thing: I told them to talk to Fred Muir if they didn’t like what the MWD was doing; my focus was on how the MWD was doing it, so smoothly.)
One of the handicaps of working in a one-man bureau was that I had no one to constantly run ideas past. (In the North San Diego bureau of Vista where I had worked previously, I was spoiled working with some great idea people, including John Glionna and Ray Tessler. We would constantly share ideas, approaches, and ledes, for constructive criticism. I didn’t have that luxury in Riverside, where I worked alone.) Instead, I turned for advice to a ”common reader”–my wife.
Jeanne, I asked, what would it take for you to read this kind of a story?
I had to confront two basic, fundamental challenges in writing the story: Get the reader into it, as quickly as possible, and keep the story flowing quickly. I had to fully understand and comprehend, personally, the issues at hand, and paraphrase them as simply as possible. (And I learned long ago that I too often used quotes when the point I was trying to make could be made more simply by paraphrasing.) I also learned, long ago, that even though I might talk to a dozen people, I didn’t have to quote each one, as if to show off to my editor how thorough I was. But by talking to dozens of people, I had the personal confidence that I grasped the issues and could summarize them with my own, authorative voice.
One of the problems I had in writing the story was that, despite the breezy and unusual lead-in, I too quickly fell into the tone a straight news story. Cindi encouraged me to incorporate the slighly flippant attitude throughout the story. When, for instance, I said that the MWD was allowed to kill endangered kangaroo rats living on the reservoir site–something Cindi found rather incredible, given that they’re supposed to be preserved–I looked for the exact quote in my notes that said how that was accomplished: They were literally plowed under. ”We blitzed them,” one guy said. So, I quoted him saying just that. Yech.
And for transition from one environmental issue to the next, I put it in context: One (issue) down, two to go; and later, ”Two down, one to go.” It helped the reader track in his mind what the issues were, and how they were dealt with.
The story was cut by about 10-15” and, of course, that always hurts. But I had to remind myself: Will the reader miss what he doesn’t know he’s not reading? I know what’s cut, of course, but the reader doesn’t.
When I re-read the final story, I was pleased. I successfully kept to the focus of the story, and the unconventional lead got past Cindi, who liked it.
Interestingly, I did not hear from the MWD whether they liked the story. That struck me as a little odd.
But more importantly, my wife liked it.
We now return to our story, beginning with the last graf we read above:.
The MWD’s strategy: Find a site with the least number of potential environmental pitfalls to begin with, spend tens of millions of dollars to develop more off-site nature reserves than required by state law, hire archeologists to comb the fields and hillsides in search of human artifacts, and work with local American Indians in relocating and preserving the archeological discoveries. The planning has taken years, but the patience and dollars spent have paid off, officials on both sides of the fence say.
“We’re very, very, very pleased with the MWD and their actions in doing something positive for the environment,” said Marvin Plenert, the western states regional director for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“If there are any environmental people who are angry about this, I haven’t seen or heard them,” he said.
Indeed, the local chapter of the Sierra Club has reviewed the project and decided to take no position on it, or even pass it along to its national office for review.
“The environmental work on it has been pretty thorough, and we have no objection to it,” said Joan Taylor, conservation chairwoman for the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club. “From a biological standpoint, this has not been a controversial project.”
Even Boronkay admits to surprise by how smoothly the project has advanced.
“I give great thanks to someone up there that this program has moved ahead much more smoothly and efficiently than anyone would have anticipated from the start,” he said.
“We adopted the attitude that we weren’t going to win this by beating down the opposition,” he said. “We were going to get support for it. We’ve probably done a lot more than we’ve had to, but we’ve won a lot of friends along the way.”
And a few enemies, too.
The Domenigoni family settled in the valley last century. The family once worked 10,000 acres of alfalfa, wheat and cattle, and now will be forced to not only sell 340 acres of their remaining 500-acre farm, but to look out their windows at a towering dam that will be built almost in their back yard.
“We’re going to lose our best water wells and our best soil, where we plant our seed stock for the next year,” complained Andy Domenigoni, the family’s fourth-generation farmer in these parts. They will lose access to another 5,000 acres the family leases for farming.
“We’re all resigned that the reservoir will be built,” Domenigoni said. “That battle was long ago lost. But if our property is going to be taken, we want it based on its highest potential use–as developable residential property–and not based on farmland.”
That is the battle now being fought between the MWD and the family, and Domenigoni complains that the MWD is trying to low-ball its offer.
Andy Domenigoni’s wife, Cindi, said: “This place has a heritage. It’s been handed down from generation to generation. Now we’re going to have to reconsider our lifestyle. Will there be a life for our son?”
While negotiations with the Domenigonis continue, the MWD has purchased more than 70% of the land needed for the 11,000-acre project.
At this point in the story, Tom slides in a how-it-happened narrative style, changing from the present to past tense:
By design, the proposed reservoir had to be built somewhere in Riverside County. Officials wanted a vast storage basin south of the San Andreas Fault, where a catastrophic temblor is expected to occur, so that they could continue to provide water for Southern California if the supply from the north were cut off. Additionally, the region’s elevation allows the water to flow by gravity to most of MWD’s customers.
One potential site, along the Potrero Creek near Beaumont, would have been cheaper to develop. But it was dismissed because it is home to a large population of endangered species and features a rich riparian and wetlands habitat. The federal regulatory review in this case would have been too cumbersome to tackle.
Another possible site was Vail Lake east of Temecula, but it too would have triggered stringent environmental review because of its wetlands habitat. Besides, it would not have accommodated a large enough reservoir.
Domenigoni Valley had several things going for it:
* Because the land had been farmed more than 100 years, it was considered environmentally disturbed. Building there would raise fewer regulatory hackles than targeting pristine land elsewhere.
* There were no wetlands or riparian habitats to muddy the environmental approvals.
* An aqueduct passes through the site, so the mechanism to fill the lake is in place.
* There was ample land nearby to set aside as nature preserves, to offset the loss of habitat in the valley.
Tom uses some subtle guiding-hand language (underlined during the next seven grafs) to make sure you stay on track with him:
But the MWD had to move quickly to buy new habitat land, ahead of developers who already had their foot in the door to build home sites.
The water agency purchased about 3,500 acres of land on the Santa Rosa Plateau, west of Murietta several miles away, at a cost of $15.4 million. The land, near a state-owned ecological preserve, had been destined for residential development.
The MWD also contributed $1.7 million to a trust fund to help manage the preserve, one of the largest undisturbed sites of California native grassland and coastal and Englemann oaks.
Buying the Santa Rosa Plateau land mitigated the loss of Domenigoni Valley’s pastureland. One environmental issue down, two to go.
Next, the MWD bought 2,400 acres just across the southern ridgeline of the reservoir site, specifically as habitat for the endangered Stephens’ kangaroo rat. Cost: $10.5 million. The site, known as the Shipley Reserve for its former owner, hosts a healthy kangaroo rat population, and by putting it into public trust, the MWD has guaranteed its posterity.
Because it set aside new habitat, the MWD won state approval to literally plow under the kangaroo rats living in the valley. “We blitzed them,” one MWD official said matter-of-factly.
Two down, one to go.
With the new habitats set aside for grasslands and the kangaroo rats, the MWD had one last hurdle: the gnatcatcher songbird, a nemesis to development all around Southern California.
The gnatcatchers living in the valley fared better than the kangaroo rats: 10 pairs were banded and released, and they have now been tracked in the hills above the valley.
Furthermore, the MWD has set aside 9,000 acres of hillside around the reservoir as a nature preserve, not only for the gnatcatcher but for 16 other sensitive bird, plant and animal species identified in the valley. That way, the project will not be jeopardized should the desert wood rat, pocket mouse or any of the other species at the site be listed as endangered.
Now Tom takes us into a brief “future” section, answering the question of what will happen next:
Construction is expected to begin in 1995, ultimately turning this open-ended valley into a 4 1/2-mile-long bathtub.
At its western end, a behemoth earthen-and-rock dam 1.8 miles long, 280 feet tall and 300 yards wide at its base will link ridgelines that form the natural sides of the reservoir. At the east end, the dam will be 2.2 miles long and 178 feet tall. A smaller dam will plug a gap along the northern ridgeline.
The reservoir will cover 4,410 acres. The water will be 250 feet deep, amounting to 800,000 acre-feet of water.
It will take four years to fill the lake to capacity–even though the MWD may draw water from it as it slowly fills with water from Northern California and the Colorado River during winter and spring months.
Fishing and sailing will be allowed on the lake, and in a public relations move to accommodate water contact sports such as water skiing, several smaller recreational lakes will be built on MWD parklands at both ends of the reservoir.
Plans also call for campsites, hiking and equestrian trails, sports fields and a golf course.
The MWD will not have to look far for materials to build the dams. It will extract dirt and rocks from the nearby hillsides, thereby significantly reducing construction costs and pollution from trucking.
Now a section on conflict that will result in an observation of the inevitability of the project and take us to the ending:
But tapping the hillsides has created one of the few sore spots with American Indians, who are distressed that one or more ancient village sites, and possibly a burial ground, will be disturbed.
The MWD and representatives of local tribal councils are still working that problem out, but Jennie Miranda, spokeswoman for the nearby Pechanga Reservation of the Temecula band of Luiseno Indians said talks are moving along. “It’s been smooth so far, and I’m not working to look for the worst,” Miranda said.
Out of respect for the region’s cultural heritage, American Indians are working with INFOTEC, a large archeological firm hired by the MWD to help identify and preserve artifacts found on the site.
So far, the valley and the hillsides have yielded about 10,000 historically significant items, ranging from arrowheads and quarry tools to granite grinding bowls and game balls. They have been retrieved, identified, interpreted, catalogued in computers and safeguarded in storage.
No one is sure what will come of the artifacts. Because most history museums are filled and can accommodate no more items, there is some talk of erecting an American Indian museum somewhere on MWD parkland for display and interpretive purposes. Elders from the region’s various tribes will make a recommendation to the MWD, which has the final word.
Miranda said although she was not willing to offer an unconditional attaboy to the MWD for its efforts in saving the artifacts, “Metropolitan has recognized some of their responsibilities, and allowing our involvement is very significant.
“Too many times developers come in and destroy cultural resources without questioning their significance with respect to cultural heritage,” she said. “What seems to be understood here is that although this is part of our (American Indian) heritage, it’s part of the history of the people of this state as well.”
Alvino Siva is an elder of the Cahuilla Indians and a member of the Riverside County Historical Commission, and he worries that some hillside sites–including rock foundations of prehistoric living shelters–will be totally destroyed for the sake of the dams.
But he acknowledges that there is no stopping the MWD. “The law just says that Native Americans will be notified (if sites are found)–but that we don’t have a say in their preservation.
“Our children need to know who they are, and a discovery like this should be preserved. Why destroy it to save a few million dollars, and to heck with your heritage?” he asks.
INFOTEC archeologist Melinda Romano has been studying the Domenigoni Valley for the MWD for a year. She and her crews of surveyors, standing 30 feet apart, have walked the entire valley and trekked into the hillsides, looking for evidence of artifacts, probing into the ground and sometimes digging 12 feet down to bedrock to search for artifacts if there are suggestive clues.
The archeologists have uncovered about 90 significant sites, including six village sites distinguished by rock art, soil altered by campfires and cooking, stone tools and the like.
“What’s so exciting about this project is that the Domenigoni Reservoir study is contributing significant information about the prehistory of inland Riverside County,” Romano said.
Had the area been developed piecemeal for home sites, the overall history of the region would not have been uncovered, Romano said.
“This can be a case example of how a major development project should be carried out,” she said.
RECOMMENDED READING: I’m halfway through Philip Roth’s “I Married a Communist” and having a ball. It’s the story of a working-class hero who takes his lumps growing up in the 1930s, becomes a socially conscious radio star after World War II, and is destroyed by McCarthyism in the 1950s. It’s simultaneously hysterical and tragic and emotionally true. Even better, it’s available in paperback. (Sports fans: One of Roth’s lesser-known classics is “The Great American Novel,” the absurdist autobiography of a dying sportswriting legend that captures our craft at its most wretched and pretentious level.)