Best of the States


Effects of California drought documented in compelling all-formats content and presentation

A home destroyed in the 2020 North Complex Fire sits above Lake Oroville in Oroville, Calif., May 23, 2021. The reservoir is shown at 39% of capacity and 46% of its historical average. The mighty lake — a linchpin in a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in the arid U.S. West that makes California possible — is shrinking with surprising speed amid a severe drought, with state officials predicting it will reach a record low later this summer. The lake helps water a quarter of the nation’s crops, sustain endangered salmon and anchor the tourism economy of a Northern California county that must rebuild seemingly every year after unrelenting wildfires.(AP Photo / Noah Berger)


With California sinking deeper into drought, Stephanie Mullen, the deputy director of storytelling for the West, contacted two of her top photo freelancers to begin planning for coverage of a wildfire season expected to be just as bad or worse than recent record-breaking years for fires.

Noah Berger, Josh Edelson and Mullen agreed they wanted to show the story not just from the perspective of the orange glow of burning homes. The extraordinary lack of usual rain and snow in late winter and early spring already has water levels in state reservoirs far below normal and they decided to show the impact of the drought in areas most likely to see wildfires later in the year.

Berger and Edelson reviewed state data and set out to visit the six reservoirs with the lowest water levels. Both photographers are trained and equipped with drones; they delivered stunning visuals, including boat docks on dry land, hillside homes charred from previous fires overlooking a lake reduced to puddle-like status and boat launches that should be submerged but don’t reach the water’s edge.

While Berger and Edelson were shooting in the field, Sacramento reporter Adam Beam spent a day on the phone, interviewing a drought expert about the status of California’s 1,500 reservoirs, and chatting with tourism officials in Butte County, home to massive Lake Oroville reservoir, where the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century raged in 2018.

The next day,Beam drove to Oroville to get a firsthand look at the reservoir. He walked over Enterprise Bridge and peered down onto a nearly empty lake while interviewing boat owners,a city councilman and lifelong residents about the physical and psychological impacts of the depleted reservoir. He also learned the lake level was predicted to get so low by August that state officials may have to shut off its hydroelectric power plant for just the second time and,in this case, during peak summer demand.

The marriage of Beam’s words — deftly edited by West editor Katie Oyan — with Berger’s and Edelson’s visuals was further enhanced by the work of Samantha Shotzbarger on the digital storytelling team. She was stunned by the imagery and set about creating a presentation that would give readers an immersive view as they read about the evaporating reservoirs and the impact on surrounding areas. She created video loops and used shots of specific reservoirs that corresponded with the flow of Beam’s story.

Their efforts resulted in a riveting package that received widespread attention in California and beyond. The story led Axios PM and the California Sun daily newsletters. It also was linked in The New York Times’ California Today newsletter and Politico’s California Playbook. Illustrating the breadth of interest,the story was No. 7 globally on Several days after AP’s package moved,the Sacramento Bee moved its own story — with AP’s engaging visuals.

For giving AP’s global customers and viewers a revealing and forbidding look at the effects of California’s drought,the team of Berger,Edelson, Beam and Shotzbarger earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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