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Spotlight on Metcalf Institute Alumni: Brett Walton

Seventeenth century-author Thomas Fuller once said, “We never know the worth of water til the well runs dry.

It’s a sentiment Brett Walton can relate to as a reporter for Circle of Blue for the past six years. The online news organization was founded by journalists and scientists focused on the world’s water sources and its relationship to food, water, and health.

“We use water pipes everyday, but we don’t see them,” said Walton, emphasizing the challenge of engaging the public in stories about the maintenance, operation and management of water systems and infrastructure. “We see the condition of our roads, we see all of the potholes, we see the cracks and we feel the jarring when we go over them in a car or bike, but we don’t see the leaks in our water system,” he added. That is, until public emergencies like lead in drinking water, dangerous algae blooms in Lake Erie, and severe droughts bring water into sharp focus.

Walton holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Richmond and a master’s degree in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington. A brief teaching position in Central Asia and further study of the region’s water issues in graduate school opened his eyes to the significance of this vital natural resource and its influence on politics, energy and agriculture. “If you dig deep enough you can find a water angle to almost any story,” he explained.

Walton writes about agriculture, energy and the politics and economics of water across the U.S. and around the globe for Circle of Blue. A desire to understand climate change impacts on water closer to his home in the Pacific Northwest brought him to Metcalf’s 2013 Climate Change and the News Science Seminar for Journalists in Seattle.

“I’ve used the sources [from the seminar] for different stories I’ve written in the past couple of years,” he said, including a story about record-warm temperatures in the Cascade Mountains, which scientists called a “cautionary signal for the entire American West” under future climate change conditions.

Walton prefers to cover under-reported stories that sometimes push important water policies into the national spotlight, like a series on failing septic systems in the U.S. Although these failing systems threaten groundwater, they are a problem hidden from public view yet with major public health and ecological implications; one in five American households use privately owned septic systems.

Another important audience for Walton and Circle of Blue are political leaders and those in a position to shape public policy around water issues. According to Walton, their stories are making a difference. “It’s always nice to see stories that we’ve written cited in a government report or in legislation,” he said.

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