Remembering Mike Taugher: Environmental Journalist, Public Servant

Mike Taugher. | Photo: @miketaugher/Twitter
Mike Taugher. | Photo: @miketaugher/Twitter

Every great story needs a great journalist.

Every complex environmental issue needs a skilled reporter to help the public understand who the central players are, and why these conflicting interests are duking it out in the legislature, through the courts, and across the media.

Every brawl as heated and brutal as the water fights that routinely erupt around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta needs a Mike Taugher.

From 2000 to 2012, Taugher, who died while snorkeling off Maui on Saturday, July 27, covered this battle royal for the heart and soul of the Golden State -- where water is power.

During those years as an investigative reporter for the Contra Costa Times, Taugher probed, parsed, and interpreted the oft-crazy politics that shaped the flow of water from the Sierra snowpack to the San Francisco Bay, from the upper reaches of the state's key rivers through the Delta and into the State Water Project that channeled millions of acre feet annually south to thirsty Angelenos.

It is fair to say, too, that no one knew more than Taugher did about the deleterious impact that Central Valley Ag has had on the threatened and endangered species caught up in these human debates -- the Delta smelt, Central Valley salmon, and striped bass became household words in good measure because of Taugher's clear-eyed and even-handed analyses of their imperiled status. Like Rachel Carson, he was savvy about the pesticides and herbicides crop-dusted on fruits, vegetables, cotton, and nuts that then migrated into our waterways, the species that lived within them, and the public's health.

Exposing the polluted nature of the body politic was also one of his favorite subjects. Just ask Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary in President George Bush's Department of the Interior. She had managed to de-list the endangered the Sacramento splittail from protection under the Endangered Species Act, an act that did not pass the smell test. As Taugher noted, MacDonald "owns an 80-acre farm in the Yolo Bypass, a floodplain of wetlands, pastures and row crops north of the Delta that is key habitat for the fish." Before being busted for this conflict of interest, MacDonald resigned her post.

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The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) found itself facing similarly intense scrutiny. Under the provocative headline "Delta's protector sat by as ecosystem collapsed," Taugher revealed in 2010 just how damagingly passive the SWRCB had become.

Delta Smelt. | Photo: Courtesy USFWS/Peter Johnsen
Delta Smelt. | Photo: Courtesy USFWS/Peter Johnsen

"A powerful state agency with broad authority over water stayed on the sidelines as the Delta ecosystem crashed and California descended into its worst water crisis since the early 1990s," was his compelling lead about the agency whose mission since its founding in 1967 has been "to preserve, enhance and restore the quality of California's water resources, and ensure their proper allocation and efficient use for the benefit of present and future generations."

The SWRCB rarely acted on these broad authorities, Taugher discovered, silencing itself just when its voice was desperately needed and at other crucial moments failing to publish already drafted regulations that might have resolved any number of pressing disputes. "In November 2008, with Delta water policy in disarray," he wrote, "the state board canceled fact-finding hearings to address water flow needs in the Delta and other issues after four board members reversed themselves and decided the hearings would be too difficult and complicated."

If this is how the agency charged with adjudicating tough water-policy issues reacted when confronted with them, then what hope was there Taugher implied of fixing some of the most important environmental questions facing California?

Insights like these are what make the death of the 50-year-old Taugher so untimely. Although he had left the newspaper business in 2012 to become the assistant deputy director of communications, education, and outreach at the California Department of Fish and Game, he remained immersed in the broad array of interrelated environmental concerns that he had illuminated through his diligent reporting.

Taugher's diligence impressed his readers and colleagues, leading to a number of well-deserved accolades. In 2007, the Bay Institute gave him its Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting...from the Sierra to the Sea," and his six-part in-depth series on the Delta earned two first-place awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association -- for environmental reporting and for investigative reporting.

Impressed too was U.S. Representative George Miller (D-Martinez): "I only knew Mike professionally, as he covered California water issues for The Contra Costa Times, the same issues that I work on as a Member of Congress from the Delta region. But I can say that Mike was unquestionably fair, knowledgeable, and deeply insightful about the issues he covered. He helped to broaden people's understanding of the environmental issues we face in California."

Mike Taugher's loss sadly diminishes the civic arena he had done so much to enlighten, an indelible mark of his manifold contributions to a more vigorous and engaged public life.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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