Portland, Oregon, reporter Gillian Flaccus, freelance photographer Nathan Howard and Denver video journalist Brittany Peterson teamed up on an all-formats package that used two Oregon carrot seed farmers, living just miles apart, to illustrate the deep inequities of water distribution amid crippling drought. The contrast between the two farm fields — one a virtual desert, while a short distance away sprinklers douse crops and cattle graze on green grass — illustrates the arcane water allocation rules determining who will wither and who will thrive amid the ongoing drought in the American West.

Using this striking example, the journalists explored how farmers, out of necessity, are considering proposals to set up water banks that use the supply and demand principles of the free market to funnel scarce water where it’s needed most while encouraging conservation. But the concept also brings risk and resistance.

Flaccus reported on the ground in and around Madras, Oregon, and shot video, while Peterson reported from Denver and produced the video, which featured Howard’s striking photos and drone footage of the drought’s impact. Top Stories Desk photo editor Alyssa Goodman in New York drew all the elements together in an engaging presentation that saw remarkable play in the West and beyond.

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At left, on Sept. 1, 2021, farmer Matt Lisignoli walks through an irrigation canal near Madras, Ore., that ran dry in early August after the North Unit Irrigation District exhausted its allocated water. At right, Lisignoli walks near an irrigation sprinkler as it waters carrot plants on his farm, Smith Rock Ranch, in the Central Oregon Irrigation District in Terrebonne, Ore., Sept. 1, 2021. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz. ... It’s shocking the difference,” said Lisignoli, a farmer who got nearly five times more water on his land in one irrigation district than on his land in another.

AP Photo / Nathan Howard