Tribune water and wine series wins McClatchy award for excellence

The Tribune has won a McClatchy Co. President’s Award for journalism excellence in 2013 for its five-part investigative series on wine and water. The series documented the precipitous drop in the North County's main groundwater source and the risks that poses for residents and the county's economy.

Sacramento-based McClatchy, which owns The Tribune and 29 other daily newspapers nationwide, received nearly 100 entries in the national competition and distributed 12 awards. The annual awards are among the highest employee honors given by McClatchy.

In announcing the award Wednesday, the judges called the series — published last June — an “achievement in explanatory journalism. The paper approached a tough topic with true command of the issues, even-handed storytelling and a thoughtful emphasis on solutions.”

Most impressive, they said, “were the clear writing and eloquent and compact presentation that together brought this important story to life.’’

The series was written by reporters Julie Lynem, David Sneed and Tonya Strickland, with photos from David Middlecamp, Joe Johnston and Laura Dickinson and an 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 who fill hotels, eat out and shop.

“Our mission in covering this unprecedented, complex crisis was two-fold: to explain it in a comprehensive, understandable way; and to provide strong public-service journalism that offered solutions, helped residents engage in public life, and spurred leaders to act,” said Executive Editor Sandra Duerr.

Since the series' publication and subsequent coverage, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors 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.

In addition, groups that were at odds have reached a compromise in developing plans for a water district to manage the basin long term.

“The news staff will continue its focus on this critical issue in the months ahead, striving to hold leaders and stakeholders accountable,” Duerr said.

Publisher Bruce G. Ray praised the staff's coverage, calling the series “outstanding journalism that investigated an issue that is critical to our county both today and in the years to come.” It is gratifying, he added, “when all the hard work that goes into this type of coverage is acknowledged at the highest levels of the company and by outside jurors.”