How CIR got records on California officials’ water use

As California faces a drought crisis this year, many cities across the state are implementing water conservation rules and people are doing their part to save water.

So the Center for Investigative Reporting wanted to find out the state’s biggest residential water customers’ usage levels. However, an amendment made to the state’s public records made it difficult to collect. Data such as residential water bills are considered confidential.

But that didn’t stop CIR reporters Lance Williams and Katharine Mieszkowski from digging in.

Williams and Mieszkowski took special interest in water bills from the same public officials pushing for conservation. Earlier this month, they published the results of their investigation, which concludes this: nearly half of the officials in charge of supervising the state’s water agencies used more water than the typical household in California.

Following the publication of the report, Mieszkowski took to Twitter earlier this week to explain how water bill records from local officials were obtained. She also gave a few tips and even posted a sample public record request letter.

We sought out to get a longer version of those tweets, so we reached the reporters and Williams answered a few questions about their process. Here is what he told us:

Q. Where did the story idea come from?

A. We wanted to find out the state’s biggest residential water customers. Users. But in the 1990s, California’s Public Records Act was amended to make residential water bills confidential. The only exception, as my partner Katharine Mieszkowski found out, involves bills of local officials who set water rates and policies. So we sought their bills.

Q. In the quest for CA Public Records Act requests, where did the search begin, and how was it narrowed down?

A. California has hundreds of water agencies. From the state, Katherine got a list of the 100 or so with the most customers. We decided to look at the top 25 over a two-year period – about 150 officials, and about 3,000 bills in all.Katherine mentioned that there were 25 biggest non-ag suppliers citing Public Records Act contacted.

Q. What was the general response from some of these—how many cited exemption?

A. The Public Records Act explicitly states that water officials’ bills must be disclosed upon request. Once they became familiar with the law, the agencies gave us the information we sought. But some were more forthcoming than others. For example, Los Angeles DWP refused to provide bills for officials if their water account was in a spouse or friend’s name. Other agencies gave us water usage info for the official’s residence, no matter whose name was on the water bill.

Q. How long did it take for some of them to respond?

A. The law requires agencies to make an initial response in 10 days, and all complied with that.

Q. Were there fees attached to the requests?

A. Small ones. At one point, LADWP billed us for 59 cents.

Q. What was the turnaround time frame for those requests?

A. Some took more than a month. Others were quicker.

Q. The San Jose Water Company denied your request, but did you end up getting the records anyway? If so, how did you get the records?

A. Some water agencies are private businesses. For that reason, they say they are not subject to the Public Records Act. We got no info from San Jose and two other private water companies.

Q. Katherine offered some tips in tweets she sent out. Besides those, any other tips or lessons you would like to share with other investigative journalists who want to do this in their states/communities?

A. Push to get the info in digital form. Many agencies want to print out the info and mail it to you, requiring you to re-input it.