A ProPublica Story

Today, The Dig dives into water. Pun totally intended. I’ve received a lot of questions about applying investigative reporting techniques to figuring out whether your water is safe — the stuff in your taps, the stuff in your rivers, the stuff at the beach. Flint, Michigan, has made us all want to be water sleuths.

Fortunately, this is one of those topics that investigative journalists routinely tackle. And tackle is the right word, because unfortunately, it turns out to be a pretty difficult job. (One experienced reporter described wrestling with a water data set as battling the “monster” — giving a nerdy journalistic task a cool, Beowulfish feel.)

The difficulty is partly due to the complexity of the topic. Water is not simple. And there’s this: most drinking water in the U.S. is safe. But let’s be honest. Local, state and federal governments do not make it easy to access water safety information. Moreover, the data they possess is often outdated and inaccurate. Pipe to pot transparency legislation for water supplies anyone?

Let’s start with drinking water. For help, I turned to ProPublica’s resident expert, environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. (Heard of fracking? That’s his work.) How do you know whether your water supply is safe? His answer:

“Short answer is that water testing is hyperlocalized. The first best thing you can do is get a clean water sample (using containers supplied by testing firm) from your own tap and have it tested. Should cost about $35. This is the only way to know for sure what you are drinking, and whether there is contamination between a government test location and your sink. Next step is to go the website of your local water utility. Every utility is required to test water to meet standards under the Federal Clean Water Act, and to post those test results annually. But there is no central database to go to for all municipalities, thus the need to check with your local water provider. Those are the two most important steps. After that it’s up to personal curiosity and ambition to know where your water comes from.”

FWIW, that final sentence should be a tattoo for any citizen investigative journalist. It applies to any quest for information from those in power. Government, corporations, your school principal. Ultimately it’s up to you — your personal curiosity and ambition — to get what you need for you, your family and your community. The public is the most effective watchdog of public information.

Back to water. On a big scale, USA Today did a great series, Beyond Flint, which examined the safety of public drinking supplies in the United States. Their topline finding: Some 2,000 water systems, serving 6 million people, had recorded at least one test indicating high lead levels during the past four years.

But the reporters on the team also described how difficult it was to actually dig up the information. Alison Young, a super-experienced investigative reporter, had so much trouble trying to determine the safety of the water flowing into her own home that she opted to buy water filters.

Her colleague, Mark Nichols, with some two decades journalistic experience, was the reporter who battled with data found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) website. The website is designed to compile inspection reports for local water agencies. Another place to look is the EPA’s Consumer Confidence Reports, which rely on the same information, but are searchable in a slightly more user-friendly way.

The problem, however, is that the Government Accountability Office and the EPA Office of Inspector General have criticized the data for being inconsistent and outdated, as Nichols noted. Heck, even the EPA dumps on its own data, gathered from some 150,000 public water suppliers: “EPA is aware of inaccuracies and underreporting of some data in the Safe Drinking Water Information System.” Your government at work, folks.

So here’s where we are with water safety in America today. Highly experienced investigative reporters have a hard time getting the big picture. And it’s not even that easy to figure out answers for your own tap. Though there are caveats, your first, best step is testing your own water.

All this points to an interesting possibility: crowdsourcing. That’s the name given to a reporting technique in which reporters and readers work together to gather information. ProPublica has done this on a number of projects, including Free the Files, our examination of political spending at local television stations, and most recently Reliving Agent Orange, looking at intergenerational effects of the defoliant on the children of Navy veterans who served in Vietnam.

Perhaps what is needed are crowdsourced water projects — an army of citizen water sleuths rising across the country to document the safety of water from the tap. I’ll rely again on Dr. Seuss to frame a reporting tip, this time from The Lorax: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”