By Mark Steil

Minnesota Public Radio

I’ve always enjoyed looking through large piles of data in my job as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio. My primary beats are the agriculture and energy sectors. I’ve been on the job 35 years now, and for most of that time a document hunt generally meant one thing: going to an office and watching someone haul out several cardboard boxes stuffed with folders and paper. I’d sit down and go through every page. But over the past decade, much of that information has moved online. I got a good reminder of that in January when I was on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website looking through water permit information.

The story that lead me to the DNR web page was the 2012 drought in Minnesota. Day after hot day brought the kind of dryness that makes you lick your lips to moisten them when you’re outside. I covered some of the obvious angles: wells going dry, river levels dropping, crops suffering. After a few of these, I got a much better sense of the importance of water in Minnesota. Sure, the state is water-rich compared to other parts of the country, 10,000 lakes and all that. But supply can still become an issue in certain parts of the state. So along with the obvious drought stories, I started looking at overall state water policy. How it works, who oversees the regulatory side, how much water people can legally pump, things like that. It turned out that in Minnesota anyone who wants to pump large amounts of water has to deal with the DNR. The DNR issues permits that authorize the holders to take a set amount of water annually from public lakes, streams and under-ground aquifers.

Once I understood how the system worked, I looked for information about permit holders and how much water each was allotted. My hope was that if I could identify areas of heavy water use, I could look into whether that usage, combined with drought impact, was causing any water shortages.

The first document I opened on the DNR’s website was a big PDF file. I started scrolling through the data and almost right away some-thing caught my eye. The numbers didn’t look right. They appeared to show dozens of violations of state water laws. It seemed too easy. I thought I must be missing something. The same information was in a spreadsheet on the DNR site. I down-loaded that. When I finished going through it, I was surprised to find out that my first impression not only still seemed to be true, but it was getting stronger. That basic finding held right through several weeks of reporting, interviews and writing. How often does that happen?

The spreadsheet I downloaded had thou-sands of entries. It contained records on every water permit issued in the Minnesota since the program began in the 1930s. As I went through the information, I concentrated on a cluster of columns that showed two things: the annual pumping limit for each permit and the actual number of gallons pumped. It didn’t take long to find examples of permit holders who had pumped more than their allotment. Those first few turned into dozens, and finally, hundreds. Hundreds of cases where individuals, businesses, schools, churches and even the DNR itself had over-pumped their water appropriations permits.

I checked state law and found that permit over-pumping was a misdemeanor. Sure, they were small crimes, but here you had hundreds of instances of provable violations staring out at you. Many went on year after year.

Finding the worst violators

Using spreadsheets, it was possible to quickly sort the data by different categories. I had worked with spreadsheets before, but I had never really understood why some people thought they were so great. Looking back, what I had missed was that because spreadsheets are put together by computer, they could also be broken down and analyzed by computer.  MPR’s news director, Mike Edgerly, has really pushed us to jump into the spreadsheet world, to make it a regular part of our reporting. I had dabbled in it, but I got a kick-start last November when I went to an IRE workshop. All of this came in handy when I landed in the water permit story. With the help of my editor, Bill Catlin, we went through the data. One really valuable thing Bill did was to sort the data and find the biggest violators. I took the top dozen or so over-pumpers and went to work on finding out everything I could about them. I had a contact in the DNR who early on had briefed me about the permit system and how it worked. I went back to him on the question of the top violators and what information I could get on them. He told me the DNR has files on each water permit holder. I asked if those files were public record, and he said they were. I thought, I’ll have to go to the DNR Central Office in St. Paul to see the files. That would be time-consuming for me because that office building is about 200 miles away. But the DNR guy was really helpful. He offered to scan the contents of each water permit file and load the information on a disc. My editor then picked up the discs at the DNR building and uploaded the files to a shared MPR work space. I downloaded the files from there. This took a few steps over several days to accomplish, but it was still much better than spending a whole day or more on a trip to St. Paul.

Interviewing over-pumpers and the DNR

When I got the actual files, the first thing that jumped out at me was that the permit over-pumping had been going on for even longer than I thought. One permit holder, a tree/plant nursery, had over-pumped their permit almost every year for two de-cades. A steel plant was taking as much as five times its permitted annual allotment. I contacted some of these people, but no one would talk on the record about why they weren’t following the requirements of their permit. Off the record, I found that many didn’t really understand what the permit required them to do. That didn’t excuse their actions, but in my mind it sent the issue back to the DNR. It was obvious there was a problem with permit over-pumping. Had the DNR done anything to curb the practice?

The answer was almost a total “no.” I expected to see at least DNR letters in the permit files warning the violators to get in line. There were maybe a couple, but that was it. When I interviewed the DNR employee who oversaw enforcement, he was candid. Over-pumping was not a major concern, he said. The most important thing for the DNR, he said, was to collect the money permit holders paid the state each year for the water they appropriated. Plus, he said the DNR didn’t have enough staff to track the over-pumpers. As for criminal penalties, he said the DNR never pursued that path because in their judgment, the prosecution of the cases would be too expensive when com-pared to the relatively small penalties a violator would be assessed. Will any of this change in the future? The DNR says it will do a better job in the years ahead. They’ll have more computer power soon to track over-pumping. The DNR officials are betting on that to help them get a better handle on the problem. But they still didn’t say if they would go back to the people over-pumping and get them to change their behavior.

Doing this story in your area

Looking back on this story, I think my basic approach would work for other reporters. The big step is to actively search, on every story, for large packages of information. They may come as spreadsheets, PDFs, or some other format. It’s easy to get discouraged because you may feel you don’t have the skills needed to analyze these large sources of information correctly. There may be thousands, or even tens of thousands of individual entries. But my approach is to figure out later what to do with the data. The critical first step is acquisition. Get the information in your hands. Get the data. Once you have it, then you can worry about what to do with it. Put another way, without the data you have zero chance of unlocking whatever stories the information may hold. With the data, even it takes a while, you’re at least in position to take your best shot at finding something good.

Mark Steil, based in Worthington, Minn., covers ma-jor changes in the economy and society in rural areas for Minnesota Public Radio and has worked for MPR since 1978.