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10 Questions: Chris Austin, Water Maven

Chris Austin is infatuated with California’s water infrastructure. And she thinks you should be, too.

Written by Michelle Matus Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Me with mike prather at owens 55ce221193831

Chris Austin is obsessed with water. So obsessed that she calls herself a water “maven.”

As the creator of MavensNotebook.com, a go-to resource for many decision-makers in California water politics, Austin dives deep into the aquatic issues that plague the state.

The maven knows water. From compiling over 10,000 images of the state’s water infrastructure and ecosystems to inadvertently being labeled a homeland security risk by the Department of Water Resources for her report on the Edmonston Pumping Plant, she proves her devotion day after day with one of the most comprehensive websites on California water.

You won’t find original reporting about water at MavensNotebook.com. What you will find is an exhaustive compilation of water news from across the state – from aggregating daily news to verbatim coverage of critical meetings. That’s why the tagline on her site is “California water, verbatim.”

Water Deeply spoke with Chris Austin about the California water crisis and a way forward for the state.

Water Deeply: What are the origins of your fascination with water?

Austin: I started writing for a citizen journalism site back in 2007. Websites were just starting to get put in the hands of regular people; blogs were really starting to come online. There was this whole citizen journalism thing going on where these websites were cropping up trying to be like mini-newspapers and we had one of those in town (her home is Santa Clarita), which I wrote for. I wrote an article on water. At the same time, I was driving up and down with the kids to grandma’s house (in Reno, Nev.) and we would see the Los Angeles Aqueduct along the way.

I like to have trips with purposes. We started almost as a family thing, traveling to see all the various parts of the aqueduct we could in our family minivan. I’m still amazed we never got stuck out in the desert. We would look on Google Earth and I would see what we could find driving down HWY 395 and off we would go.

I compiled all of these pictures of the aqueduct and turned that into a slideshow. I really enjoyed that project. In the midst of all of that, I read Cadillac Desert [by Marc Reisner] and that inspired me. It sort of became my passion. I dragged my poor husband, kids and dog all over the desert.

It’s fascinating that we have been able to do that to the planet, our little neck of the woods here on the planet, and it’s amazing that the water systems work as well as they do. They have allowed us to grow and put people where they don’t belong, but they have had such impacts on everything and some really bad ones, like wildlife and water quality and all that. Our modern society can’t do without these water systems, but they are damaging. So therein lies the problem. We can’t cut these systems off, because we need them. But we have to figure out how to do something with them so that they aren’t so harmful to the ecosystem.

Water Deeply: What do you think are some of the most important issues facing California with regards to the drought?

Austin: Groundwater is getting a lot of coverage; that’s a big issue. And, water rights. I think about what we are going to do about the water rights system, trying to see how we are going to work things out. That is hard because we have a water rights system built for an era that doesn’t really exist anymore. I don’t know how we are going to change things around and do it in an equitable way.

These are tough things, but just because they are tough doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t go forward. We are going to have to find a way to go forward and to get into these messy things and come up with answers because we just can’t sit on the sidelines and keep studying things. I think the drought pushes that.

Water Deeply: What are some underrepresented issues that aren’t currently being covered enough?

Austin: I think that there is a whole thing brewing with the Delta Tunnels Project because they have made some changes in the project and these changes now have bigger ramifications than just a change in the project. There were certain things in the 2009 Delta Reform Act, certain requirements that the project was meant to fulfill, and it’s not going to fulfill them anymore. The big policy question is what are they going to do about it.

The people in northern California know about the tunnels – people are ready to go to war over the tunnels – but come down here to southern California and you’ll get deadpan eyes. They still don’t understand where their water comes from.

Water Deeply: How do you keep up with the volume of information? What kind of hours do you work?

Austin: It’s more than a full-time job. I keep thinking there is such a confluence of major topics and things going on right now that hopefully the drought will go away and then it will just be Delta tunnels and groundwater. That would be much easier!

The good thing is that I actually started the Notebook before the drought in June of 2012. I was building a structure to integrate all these different things around the internet and then organizing them. I have adopted the philosophy of “do it now” or it won’t get done. If I started out in the middle of the drought, I don’t think I could have come up with it; it would have driven me crazy. I was able to start out slow and add all of this stuff in. I wasn’t driving the car and trying to build it.

Water Deeply: You provide a lot of transcripts of meetings and conference calls, which is valuable detail. Do you do this with recordings and software or by hand?

Austin: I actually do it all myself. I have someone that I occasionally use that can help me out with that, but a lot of the things I do are pretty technical. Cleaning up a bad transcription takes longer than if I just do it myself. Everything you see from the website – every word that goes on the Notebook – has been written, posted and published by me.

Water Deeply: How do you see your role in the information world? Do you consider yourself a journalism organization, or something more like C-SPAN?

Austin: I don’t see myself as a journalist, or doing journalism. I am more like documentation. I try and supplement what is covered in the mainstream press with something different. If I show up somewhere and see the whole back room is filled with reporters, I’m probably not going to cover that event and just link to the things that they do. But in the meetings where nobody is and I am the only one, those are the things I cover.

I also think that there is nothing like getting out into the landscape and trying to get as much understanding of the physical lay of the land – the farms, the rivers, the water infrastructure – and trying to see it first hand. I like to incorporate a lot of pictures of California waterscapes into my website. It is my strategy for connecting people to the water and the consequences of the decisions we’re making.

Water Deeply: How do you support the site financially? Do you have any major backers the public should know about?

Austin: I do have support from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment. That is an important piece in my funding puzzle. I do have some of the science coverage subsidized by the Delta Science Program. The rest is reader donations. It has not been highly profitable, but I am gearing up for a round of funding soon.

Water Deeply: You were the creator of Aquafornia, now part of the Water Education Foundation. Why did you decide to create a new water site?

Austin: I created Aquafornia. That was my first news aggregating site. The Water Education Foundation came along and sponsored me about a year and a half later, and then two years after that, they came along and wanted to buy the website from me. I sold them the website. I started Maven’s Notebook concurrently, but since I had a non-compete, I didn’t do the news aggregation until my non-compete clause was finished.

Water Deeply: How do you hope your work will be helpful to the public in this era of water crisis?

Austin: I’m the independent one, the unedited one. People trust what I say because I am not an advocate for anything. I am just an information source and people trust me for that. It’s a lot of information to go through if you aren’t familiar with it. If you are reading my type of content, then you are really into water. You are not the regular person in the public going “what about this water thing.” God help you if you land on my website!

You won’t find me writing about the basic stuff – you’re just expected to know. I do have a pop-up glossary for some of the other things that help people understand some of the tougher words, but not the basics. I aim for the legislators and policy people and agency people.

I have a big science component. Policy and science is going to have to get married up here quickly. Having the science content is important and that is something that is unique to the Notebook. When I started out the Notebook, one of the things I did was follow the Delta Stewardship Council and that is really where the science came in.

Water Deeply: Do you see a way for California and the West to find a way out of the water crisis?

Austin: There are no easy answers. A large segment of the population thinks it should be figured out already. It is going to have to be done collaboratively. Everyone is going to have to come to the table and sit down to figure this out. Not everyone is going to win. I hate to portray it as winners and losers, but change is going to have to be made and it will be difficult. We have to go forward and face those decisions and work out equitable solutions. We don’t have a choice. It can’t be done in back rooms or in D.C. by legislation on its own. It is going to have to be done with people coming together and realizing the gravity of the situation to find a way to move forward together.

Top Image: Chris Austin, left, with Mike Prather at Owens Lake.

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