March 20, 2015

New Newspaper OwnersOn March 12, The Los Angeles Times published an alarming op-ed on the perilous state of California’s water supply by Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech. California, Famiglietti wrote, has just one year’s worth of water left in its reservoirs, the groundwater that serves as a backup water supply is quickly diminishing, and the state’s contingency plan for coping with an extended drought amounts to little more than “praying for rain.”

The story was a sobering account of the state of California’s most critical resource. But what really got people around the state alarmed was the headline:

“California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?”

As Famiglietti would later point out, he made no such claim in the piece. In fact, reservoirs only account for one portion of the state’s total water supply. Nevertheless, the headline prompted panicked double-takes all over Facebook and Twitter.

Soon, other experts began weighing in, criticizing the headline as irresponsible fearmongering. John Fleck, a faculty member at the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, blogged that the headline was a “click-generating machine.” “Many’s the time I’ve been bitten by a headline written by someone else atop my work,” Fleck added. “But it’s a reminder that communicating about water policy is hard.”

Jay Lund, the director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, also scoffed at such a nightmare scenario. “It’s not the right impression that one more year of this and we’re toast,” he told the television news station KXTV.

State officials also disputed the headline, insisting that California is in no danger of running out of water in the next two years. Where did they say this? In the pages of The Los Angeles Times, which published a follow-up story this morning that also quoted Famiglietti: “We’re not going to run out of water in 2016.”

The headline for that story? “No, California won’t run out of water in a year.”

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