By IRW staff

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The stories IRW published in 2020 on water problems in Florida and California  illuminate some of the many water issues prevalent in the country today.

In California, we focused on the neighboring towns of Tooleville and Exeter, one with poor-quality water and the other with clean water. In Florida, we looked at the longstanding problem of phosphorus runoff into Lake Okeechobee that reaches the coasts through rivers and man-made canals, creating algae blooms that drive away tourists and can be toxic to humans.

The Weather Channel supported our work in Florida and made it available on weather.com. The Tampa Bay Times published the story online and in print. In California, the Fresno Bee, which has a track record of covering water issues in the state, co-published the project.

Documentary filmmakers Mary Cardaras and Casey Beck joined us, too, filming in Tooleville for months. They chronicled the lives of those who have to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing; they attended city council meetings and neighborhood strategy sessions.

WHY FLORIDA’S TOXIC ALGAE PROBLEMS CONTINUE
Alligator in Everglades canal
An alligator navigates a canal on the side of the Tamiami Trail inside Everglades National Park in South Florida. (Zak Bennett for The Weather Channel)

Main story: Florida’s phosphorus problem is so acute that it has created a divide between the agriculture industry in the center of the state and tourism hubs on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorus from Lake Okeechobee reaches the coasts through rivers and man-made canals, nourishing a smelly, guacamole-like algal goop that drives away tourists and can be toxic to humans. Coastal residents increasingly blame the agriculture industry for the mess. Farmers and ranchers insist they’re not to blame and argue that costly water regulations would doom their way of life.

State oversight: Farmers and ranchers emerged this year with a bit of protection against future regulations. A one-paragraph provision, slipped into a required budget bill on the last day of the session, consolidated the power of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs to regulate pollution running off farmland.

CALIFORNIA’s GREAT DIVIDE hurts minority communities
Boxes of bottled water
Tooleville residents who are part of an income-based water shipment program receive enough free drinking water to last them about a week. But the program doesn’t always provide enough water for everyone’s bathing or cooking needs. (Lance M. Yamamoto)

TOOLEVILLE, Calif. — An ongoing struggle between two communities less than a mile apart in one of the nation’s key farming regions is a microcosm that illustrates the challenges California faces as it tries to deliver clean, affordable drinking water to more than 1 million residents without access to what the state has called a “basic human right.”

Nestled among orange groves in the Central Valley, the community of Tooleville has just 391 residents. Hardly a town or a village, it’s a place with a name and a few dozen homes along two dead-end roads off the highway. The drinking water it draws from two nearby wells is often so contaminated with farming-related nitrates and pesticides that residents have been receiving free bottled water from state and county agencies.

Less than a mile west of Tooleville is the town of Exeter. Its 10,500 residents have paved streets and schools. They get their water from a municipal system without harmful contaminants.

A look back:

Why we did the stories: It’s not just Flint

The Polluted by Politics project was a collaboration between IRW and The Weather Channel

Reporters:

On the Florida story: Marcus Stern/The Weather Channel and IRW; and Meryl Kornfield/IRW

On the California story: Austin R. Ramsey, Lucas Smolcic Larson and David Rodriguez/IRW

Documentarians:

Casey Beck and Mary Cardaras

PhotographY and video:

Photographers: Zak Bennett/The Weather Channel and Hadley Chittum/IRW
Photo Editor: Nicole Bonaccorso/The Weather Channel
Graphics: Rebecca Pollock/The Weather Channel
Design: Kelly Martin/IRW
Video Editors: William Jauregui/The Weather Channel and Austin R. Ramsey/IRW

Editors:

Susan White, Lynne Perri, Rose Ann Robertson/IRW; Patty Cox, Nicole Bonaccorso, Keith Epstein/IRW

Publishing Partners:

In California: The Fresno Bee; In Florida: The Tampa Bay Times