The Tribune wins top state journalism award for 'Wine and Water' series

Five-part series documents the drop in Paso Robles groundwater levels and its threat to residents and the economy

newsroom@thetribunenews.comOctober 19, 2013 

The Tribune has won a top state award for its five-part investigative series on wine and water that documented the precipitous drop in the North County’s main groundwater source and the risks that poses for residents and the county’s economy.

The “Wine and Water’’ series published in June received the 2013 Award for Excellence in Print in the 19th Annual California Journalism Awards, sponsored by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento and the Sacramento Press Club.

This year’s awards were especially competitive, with more than 80 entries, nearly quadruple the average, award organizers said.

In announcing the award, judges praised the staff's "commitment to exploring the impact of development and vineyard irrigation on groundwater supply ... increasing public awareness of critical water and conservation issues facing California."

The series was written by reporters Julie Lynem, David Sneed and Tonya Strickland, with photos from David Middlecamp, Joe Johnston and Laura Dickinson and editorial by Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane. Designer Beth Anderson created the maps, and senior editor Joe Tarica designed the series.

The coverage found that levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have dropped dramatically in the past 30 years; 67 percent of the water being pumped out is used by agriculture, with vineyards getting the largest chunk.

The decline poses a profound threat not only for North County residents who could lose their homes because their wells are going dry but also for vineyards, which could lose access to a crucial resource. That in turn could hurt the county’s top economic driver — the tourism industry, which counts on wineries to help woo visitors, fill hotels, eat out and shop.

The Tribune staff capped the series with a front-page editorial urging the San Luis Obispo County Board to take several steps — from conservation mandates to formation of a water district with regulatory teeth — to ensure that thirsty vineyards don’t threaten the North County’s main water supply.

“As journalists, we strive to make a difference in our communities — in big and small ways. The news staff undertook this series, including offering solutions suggested by water experts, to shed light on the unprecedented crisis in hopes that it would help residents — and leaders — develop informed solutions,’’ said Tribune Executive Editor Sandra Duerr.

Since the series’ publication and subsequent coverage, the County Board has adopted an emergency ordinance banning new pumping from the groundwater basin for up to two years and has begun work toward a long-range solution.

“The news staff will continue its focus on this critical issue in the months ahead, striving to hold leaders and stakeholders accountable,” Duerr said. “On the front page Sunday, for example, Lynem and Strickland report water experts’ recommendations for crafting long-term solutions.”

Publisher Bruce G. Ray praised the staff’s coverage, adding “Since my arrival at The Tribune in 2007, The Tribune has consistently won awards for its excellent journalism and made a difference in our community. I am extremely proud of their work.”

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