Probing the Roots of Catastrophe, Part II

Recently, I wrote about the press' responsibility to investigate the underlying causes of disasters like the flame-up of wildfires in Southern California last month. In recent months, another growing problem has arisen. While not as dramatic or immediately threatening as the fires, this issue could be just as consequential for another heavily populated region of the country.

Record droughts have been drying out the Southeast, depleting reservoirs to the point that Georgia declared a state of emergency, and the governors of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia came together to iron out a water-sharing agreement. Things have gotten so bad that Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue even held a prayer service a few weeks ago beseeching God for rain. The national press has picked up the story over the past month, but have reporters looked beyond the fact that there's been less precipitation this year to ask what deeper factors could have caused this crisis to develop?

Not surprisingly, many accounts of the drought have hewed closely to the immediate facts on the ground, but there's also been a pleasantly surprising amount of investigation into environmental issues at play in the region. In a recent analysis, BBC News dug a bit deeper into the problem, noting that unbridled development and Atlanta's notorious urban sprawl have not only heightened the severity of the drought, but continue largely unabated. Op-ed commentators have made the obvious connection between the shortage and the need for  water conservation, and the New York Times ran a story last week on one particularly wasteful Atlanta resident, who managed to use 440,000 gallons of water in September. Atlanta's hometown paper has noted the damage the drought is doing to the local flora, and several sources are covering the battle over whether water should be siphoned off from shrinking reserves in order to save endangered mussels and sturgeon downstream.

While it would be nice to see a few broader, more comprehensive takes on the complex interaction between a thirsty boomtown and the surrounding environment, the realities of daily deadlines and newsroom demands make it tough to pitch such slow-moving topics. Still, problems stemming from the intersection of expanding urban development with the environment aren't going away any time soon, and it's important that journalists keep kicking over trashcans and getting creative to bring these kinds of stories to readers.

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