Bettina Boxall worked as a staff photographer and writer at newspapers such as The San Marcos Daily Record in Texas (1976-77) and The Bennington Banner in Vermont (1978-82) before landing at the Los Angeles Times in 1987 as a reporter covering the environment and natural resources – specifically, fire and water. She and her colleague Julie Cart won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series about the proliferation of wildfires in the West.
Boxall comes to Salinas this week to speak on a panel with guests including Felicia Marcus, chair of California’s State Water Resource Control Board, and Abby Taylor-Silva, VP of Policy and Communications for the Grower-Shipper Association. The panel, sponsored by California Humanities, is called “California Water: Rivers, Oceans, and Our Future.”
Weekly: I want to ask you about the Soberanes Fire in Big Sur.
Boxall: We have a big one now [in Southern California]: Blue Cut, and 80,000 people have been evacuated, 30,000 acres have been burned. It started yesterday morning [Aug. 13].
Did you go?
I stayed in the office and made calls to fire [officials], rewriting and getting feeds from people out in the field. Maybe I’ll be activated. I’ve followed [the Soberanes Fire]. It’s burning in typical fashion in the Los Padres National Forest – chaparral, grass, timber. There’ve been huge fires there over the years.
What are some issues the community needs to address afterward? More roads for fire trucks?
You don’t want to put in a bunch of roads. Many fires are caused by people, so you’re inviting more ignition. Communities that have burned can rebuild in a more preventative way, to make [houses] more insulated from fire starts. Climate change could intensify fire behavior.
What do you think is fair in that balance between people’s choice to live in the “wildland-urban interface” and the public safety net?
I don’t know that I would make a decision about what’s fair. The government allows those houses to be built there. They could put more limits on building in very high-risk fire zones, but that doesn’t tend to go anywhere. It’s tax income. It’s allowed development to spring up next to national forests. Local government has to do a better job of saying, “This area has burned over and over again and maybe we shouldn’t have [houses] there.”
You say water is a complex issue in California. Is that because California is so big?
Yes. Our water comes from different places. Water is transported through hundreds of miles, overseen by different government agencies and regional agencies and different regulations and laws. When I was first asked to cover water, I thought, “Oh god.” It’s a very steep learning curve.
Is Chinatown the best film about the California water crisis?
Yes and no. There’s been skulduggery and deals, but [the film] simplifies it and makes L.A. a villain. Far more environmental destruction has been caused by ag. No one remembers that irrigation [decimated] the San Joaquin River – the second-longest river in California. Sixty miles of [it] dried up. It’s only now we’re trying to restore the flow. San Francisco gets its water from the Hetch Hetchy. They had Congress approve construction of a dam and reservoir inside a national park, which is rather remarkable.
Where can water use be reduced?
Most is used by ag. One can say they should reduce more than urban, but we all have to. Twentieth-century water use in California was based on denial of geography – this is a drought-prone, semi-arid state. Both sectors are getting more efficient. The way California used water in the 20th century was pretty thoughtless and often wasteful. The adjustment will be painful, but we can do it. Ag will not disappear. Cities will not dry up and blow away.
What’s the Pulitzer Prize ceremony like?
It’s a very understated, low-key event, with a strong flavor of East Coast academia, which I love. It’s in a great old Columbia University building, in a rotunda. It’s not just journalists: Drama, history and poetry winners are there. The chair makes a few comments, the president of Columbia makes comments, the prize is announced, you get a certificate, you pose for a photo, and you sit down. When you first go in, they give you a badge that says “winner,” and hand you a blue box with a Tiffany crystal inside. For a longtime journalist, that’s as good as it will get.