Great Read: How an anonymous blogger stands out on California water policy
On a Thursday in February four years ago, the self-described “low-level civil servant” who produces OnthePublicRecord.org, an anonymous blog about California water, posted an existential lament about life amid the policy wonks.
“Sometimes I wonder what terrible thing I did wrong in a previous lifetime that I must now spend so much of my time in windowless hotel ballrooms, listening to people read slides to me,” wrote the blogger.
“I must have been Vlad the Impaler.”
With that, the nameless bureaucrat who goes by the initials OtPR provided those who follow the distinctive and well-informed blog an alternative handle: Vlad.
California water policy can be an insular, jargon-ridden field. On most issues, the arguments and counter-arguments have been around so long that they can seem about as flexible as a concrete dam.
Amid the hydraulic brotherhood, as devotees of water are often called, recitation of a Mark Twain quote that whiskey is for drinking and water for fighting over — one that, in all likelihood, the author never actually wrote or uttered — passes for high humor, along with puns about water being a dry subject.
In this arena, Vlad stands out.
For seven years the blogger has been at it — deciphering dense but important technical reports, slicing through foggy rhetoric, offering witty insights into the ways of bureaucrats and poking away at elected officials and industry leaders, and the journalists who cover them.
“I see the vehement editorials calling for new dams and I grin,” the blogger wrote in 2009, amid an earlier drought. “Every single time I wonder. Suppose your new dams are built, buddy. What will you put behind them? Root beer? The waters of the state are spoken for.”
“This is all we get, all the time,” OtPR railed after attending a platitude-laden conference laced with expressions of positive intent and common purpose. "… We know. Bigger pies, power of collaboration, efficiency, the children are our future. We know.”
“I understand that almonds garner high prices worldwide and are profitable for Californian farmers,” the blog noted in January 2014, addressing the rapid expansion of nuts grown for export in the Central Valley. “But maybe in an extreme drought, the governor could decide that he wants to spend our limited water on preserving our native species.”
That the author of these posts and hundreds more like them has managed to remain anonymous ranks as quite a coup, especially in the relatively small world of California water policy. Even Vlad can seem amazed the game’s lasted so long.
“How anonymous am I?” the blogger wrote last year. “I don’t know. … Sometimes I wonder if everyone knows who I am and they’re just humoring me.”
The well-archived Vladian oeuvre leads one to imagine the author — 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.
In fact, she looks nothing like the imagined Vlad.
After numerous email conversations, the blogger agreed to meet in person on the promise of anonymity; this would be in exchange for confirmation that the “low-level civil servant” was not a mirage.
As it happens, her gender already had leaked out a year ago, in a passing reference made in a lengthy national magazine article that many of those who wonder about Vlad’s identity seem to have missed.
“People’s assumptions that I’m a man,” she said, “have helped me stay undercover, which I have appreciated.”
It’s difficult to say with any precision how much influence is wielded by Vlad the Impaler — or any commentator on water. When it comes to framing water policy, it’s tough to trump Mother Nature, markets and, maybe, the water bar.
“I have decided moving the water conversation is like trying to nudge an aircraft carrier with a motor boat,” said Phil Isenberg, the former state legislator and Sacramento mayor who remains engaged in California water issues and is a big fan of the blog.
Isenberg is among the more than 110 regulars who registered to follow the OnthePublicRecord.org website — a small audience, perhaps, but one that includes some notable academicians, well-known water warriors, state and federal legislative staffers and other water-related bloggers (there are many).
The major attraction seems to be her edginess.
“I frequently think my role is to speak the taboo, so that others can offer more moderate versions,” she explained in an earlier email.
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.
And, from time to time, Vlad has raised the almost taboo topic of population limits: “This stuff gets brought up awkwardly at meetings, then we all retreat,” she observed. “But controlling population has profound implications for California’s resource use and climate. We should face it head on.”
OtPR, who calls blogging “a compulsion,” prefers to refer to her writing posture as pseudonymous, rather than anonymous.
“I love that my words stand on their own,” she writes in the blog’s “about me” entry. “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.”
This is the high-concept rationale for blind blogging. In an email, Vlad offered a more pragmatic motivation.
“I want to keep writing OtPR,” the government worker wrote, “and I want to keep my state job.”
So far, there doesn’t seem to be any concerted effort to identify the blogger. Oh, there might be infrequent telephone speculation among the water bureaucrats, or quick trips through the bureaucratic warrens to see if OtPR’s home page photograph of thick white binders stacked against a wall painted harvest gold can be matched.
Nonetheless, advances in computer sleuthing don’t seem to bode well for Vlad. And, somewhat surprisingly, identity clues are sprinkled throughout the posts.
There are references, for example, to an eighth-grade history day project on Los Angeles water, to time spent at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, to two graduate degrees, to frolics with a dog in the American River, to a treasured copy of the California Water Atlas, an elegant encyclopedia published by the state in the 1970s.
“They’re real big, bound in navy blue,” she wrote on the blog post to a graduate student seeking advice about a water career. “All the cool kids have one. Don’t know if it has information you couldn’t find online these days, but having one in your office is part of the secret handshake.”
The self-evident downside of writing anonymously presents a mirror image of the upside: Nobody knows who you are. And that, as Vlad has observed, can become “a little lonely … a bit like throwing stones into a quiet lake.”
In any event, she has posted, “I will 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.”
Being outed might not be a career buster, but it probably won’t be a good day at the office, either — all those impaled politicians and influential players, all those archives.
“I will keep blogging, I expect,” the blogger blogged. “I don’t think I can stop.”
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