California Aqueduct near Pearblossom in the Antelope Valley. LA Observed photo.
For seven years, an anonymously written blog called On the Public Record has reported and commented on the arcane world of California water policy and politics. The blogger, who goes by OtPR, is well informed and not shy about breaking news or offering opinions. The blog posts detail what happens in meetings, what gets included and left out of reports, and takes sides on some of the issues that water warriors have been arguing about for generations. Water insiders know that OtPR walks among them, they just don't know which of themselves is the snoopy blogger.
"I am still a low-level civil servant who reads reports," OtPR says on the blog's About Me page. "I still do not represent my employer on this blog, not one little bit. I still only comment on what I see in the public record, in reports, presentations and the news."
But in Monday's LA Times, the water wonks learned a good bit more about OtPR. For whatever reason, OtPR met face to face with reporter Peter H. King and the first revelation is that she is a woman. Which undercut King's assumption going in that he would be "mid-40s, a bit pudgy from all those pre-conference Danishes, a fellow with rolled-up shirt sleeves and no-iron khakis, poring over NASA satellite images or the latest crop reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service with tired eyes behind 2.50-magnitude readers."
Nope. "People's assumptions that I'm a man," she says, "have helped me stay undercover, which I have appreciated." King agreed not to give up her identity.
OtPR was years ahead of the mob that mid-drought discovered it takes water to grow almonds. As far back as 2008, she was raising questions about the then-early push to replace field crops with almonds and vines, crops that tend to harden demand for water, drought or no drought:
"Really?" she asked. "What the world needs is more almonds? More wine? As we foresee another couple billion people and international famines, you think we should commit our world-class farmland to almonds?"
More recently, the blog has raised some salient questions for those who would put a blind faith in markets to solve all things water. She suggested late last summer, following up on a federal survey of San Joaquin subsidence, that growers drilling the deepest wells be made to pay for the damage to canals and roads being caused by subsidence. Then she used NASA satellite images and Google Earth to demonstrate how to track down the culpable parties.
King details some of the clues that OtPR has left on the record about her identity, including that she has a state job that she doesn't want to lose, and together that all must narrow it down pretty well for those in the "hydraulic brotherhood" who want to out her.
For her side, OtPR argues on her blog that she is not anonymous so much as pseudonymous. She's not hiding her lack of expertise or ethics or an anti-social streak, which I have found are the biggest reasons that anonymous bloggers lurk in the shadows before fading out. To the contrary, she argues, her blog has a reputation that she values.
OtPR is a stable identity, here and in the comments of other water blogs. It has been several years now. OtPR has a reputation to uphold, one I value and protect.
I started blogging pseudonymously because I don’t want to mix my professional and blogging worlds. It turns out I love blogging pseudonymously, primarily for a reason I didn’t expect. I love that my words stand on their own. They can’t be weighted by an academic pedigree nor dismissed as the obvious thing someone of my background would say. They aren’t shaded by what I am like in person, my age or my clothes or an accent or look. They must be considered alone.
I like being in the water profession distinct from OtPR. I write about public disputes and widely known people from afar, and want to keep it that way. In person, in public meetings with influential people, I sit quietly and watch. I don’t have to say anything. I can make my thoughts known should I want to. I don’t want to meet the influential names in the field nor sit in important meetings. If I met them, I would probably like them and lose my ability to call them terrible things. We all know how important that is to me. Keeping the two separate is very grounding. When OtPR has posted some provocative piece and is getting attention, I can go to work and be reminded that blog controversy is very different from real life, where no one cares. It does get a little lonely. I have never once heard OtPR mentioned in real life (even if someone reads it, how would he know to mention that to me?), which can make blogging a bit like throwing stones into a quiet lake.
I’ll be outed one day. It is inevitable. When I am, you guys will realize that knowing OtPR will tell you more about some bureaucrat with a name than knowing my name will tell you about OtPR. I will keep blogging, I expect. I don’t think I can stop. It will be less pleasant, but if I don’t blog, I have to think all these thoughts by myself.
An aside: It's good to have Pete King writing for the LA Times again about California, isn't it?