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Jose A. Del Real receives New America Award for 'Brown Water for Brown People'


Matthew Kent, SPJ Program Coordinator, 317-920-4788, mkent@spj.org
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, zberg@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is happy to recognize Jose A. Del Real as the recipient of the 2019 New America Award for his reporting with The New York Times.

The New America Award honors journalism that sheds light on important issues of immigrant or ethnic communities in the United States.

The series “Brown Water for Brown People: California's Overlooked Drinking Water Crisis” examines how failing water infrastructure and ineffective state regulations have collided to create a public health disaster in California.

After learning that many families in the San Joaquin Valley spend 10-15% of their meager wages on bottled water because their tap water is unsafe, Del Real did some digging into the issue and discovered an obscure trove of compliance data published by the state.

Over the course of his reporting, Del Real found that as many as 1,000 community water systems in California may be on the brink of failing while the state is kept in the dark, across rural and urban communities.

“Right away I realized most of these communities were primarily Spanish-speaking; and most of the people I interviewed had never spoken to a journalist because they cannot speak English,” Del Real wrote in his cover letter.

He interviewed members of those communities and developed sources within several state agencies who were eager to share what they knew, on background. Del Real discovered that government agencies often are unable to intervene until toxic water is already being delivered due to regulatory gaps. Some agencies look the other way because they cannot afford to take financial responsibility for broken infrastructure.

“California isn’t the only state with water-deprived communities like those Del Real profiles, but his eye for detail and the human touch brings alive the data, history and disparities on which his stories are based. In telling this very human and elemental story, Del Real has heightened concern about lax regulation and unfulfilled promises that affect immigrant and ethnic communities in the wealthiest American state,” judges said in their comments.

Del Real’s reporting helped spur legislators to fund water infrastructure projects, and the California governor’s office announced a diverse advisory board with representatives from many of communities featured in the pieces.

The series consists of four articles.
They Grow the Nation’s Food, but They Can’t Drink the Water
The Crisis Lurking in Californians’ Taps: How 1,000 Water Systems May Be at Risk
How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes
‘Brown Water for Brown People’: Making Sense of California’s Drinking Water Crisis

Although the issue received attention, Del Real noted in his cover letter that “money alone will not be enough if the relevant state agencies do not account for systemic inequities and the long history of selective disinvestment in low-income communities.”

Currently, Del Real is a reporter for The Washington Post on its national political enterprise and investigations team.

The New America Award is celebrating 16 years of honoring work focused on immigrant or ethnic communities. This year’s recipient is scheduled to be honored at the SPJ President’s Installation Banquet during Excellence in Journalism 2020. Read more about the New America Award, including past recipients, here.

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