Journalism supported by the Lane Center explores the intricate social, economic, environmental and historical forces that shape Western land and life

Black and white photo of Brandon Kapelow, standing in front of an empty field, looking off into the distance
Photo courtesy of Brandon Kapelow

The 2024 Lane Center Media Fellow will work to understand and show why western regions have the country's highest suicide rates

After a competitive application process during which the Bill Lane Center considered 16 promising proposals from journalists investigating issues facing the American West, Center staff selected Brandon Kapelow as the 2024 Western Media Fellow. Kapelow, a visual artist from Wyoming whose credits span work as a director, photographer and cinematographer, will receive a $5,000 stipend to pursue his project, "Somewhere I Belong."

Through the Western Media Fellowship program, the Bill Lane Center has supported journalism about Western land and life for more than a decade. Fellows work in all kinds of media — newspapers, magazines, radio, television, online, video, film, data visualization and mapping, and multimedia. Connecting talented reporters to university life allows these storytellers to interact with Stanford researchers, scholars, and students while investigating projects of their own design. Applicants must submit proposals that examine a crucial aspect of the West -- its land, its people, its history, and the impact of the forces that power its economies.

Kapelow will focus his project on a pervasive public-health challenge plaguing Western states: suicide. An epidemic that is heavily linked to the American West, suicide has devastating impacts on individuals who survive an attempt and the families who lose loved ones, Kapelow's work shows. As a loss survivor himself, Kapelow has tried to understand and document the mental-health crisis in the most severely impacted states -- Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. 

The West is where Kapelow grew up and where his family still lives. His Lane Center project seeks to examine the relationship between suicide and the environments where it occurs. "How does the land and its history influence the psychology of its occupants? How do cultural themes inspired by Manifest Destiny and rugged individualism continue to influence the mental-health crises ravaging the West? How are people living in the boom-and-bust towns of the West meant to cope with upheavals in industry, environment and urbanization?" 

These are some of the questions Kapelow hopes to answer in "Somewhere I Belong," a multi-part report using both photography and text to tell painful but important stories. TIME published part one of this project in October of 2022 with coverage of the public health crisis in Catron County, New Mexico, which had the highest suicide rate of any county in the contiguous United States from 2010 to 2020. The Lane Center Western Media Fellowship will support a second installment of Kapelow's work, this time focusing on the rural Alaskan Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. According to Kapelow, western Alaska is the only region in the country to surpass Catron County's rate of suicides. 

The Lane Center looks forward to watching Kapelow's project move forward, as his work promises to shed light on a mental-health crisis in the rural West with honesty and sensitivity.  "Social connection and its absence lie at the heart of this issue," Kapelow wrote in his proposal. "By creating space for survivors to tell their stories, this project seeks to foster opportunities for hope and connection through shared experience; to start difficult, but necessary conversations in areas of the West where stigmas around mental health remain powerful; and to provide insights to researchers and policy makers working to find solutions to this pervasive public health dilemma."

The 2023 Lane Center Media Fellow has unveiled the names and histories of 20 Imperial Valley farming clans who get the most Colorado River water 

Janet Wilson headshot
Photo courtesy of Janet Wilson


Janet Wilson, the Lane Center's 2022-2023 Western Media Fellow, has been working on two new stories, published today, investigating the few California families who use more Colorado River water than some states.  In a collaboration with Nat Lash of ProPublica, Wilson and the Desert Sun worked to analyze satellite data and business and agricultural records. Their reporting shows how one family -- the Elmores of Elmore Desert Ranch -- consumed an estimated 22.5 billion gallons of water in 2022. By comparison, the entire city of Scottsdale, Arizona is allotted only slightly more of the precious resource. 

The Elmores and just a handful of other extended families -- nineteen of them -- consume one-seventh of the lower Colorado River's water flow, Wilson's article reveals. This is a rather astounding finding, given how severe drought has placed the viability of the entire Colorado River water system in jeopardy. Regardless of the dwindling supply, this water will first go to twenty families and Imperial County, due to historic claims that move them to the front of the line.  "The historic claims that put a few California farming families first in line for Colorado River water," Wilson writes, explain "how a handful of families and a rural irrigation district came to control so much of the West’s most valuable river. [It] is a story of geography and good timing, intermarrying and shrewd strategy, and a rich but sometimes ugly past when racist laws and wartime policies excluded farmers of color. Together, they winnowed the greatest access to these 20 clans, who today use more of the river than all of Wyoming, New Mexico or Nevada." The full article can be found here.

A second article by Nash and Wilson is a deeper dive into exactly how much water each of these families uses, with data visualization clearly depicting the disproportionate distribution to just 20 families. 

The Imperial Irrigation District and the farmers within it did not reject the analysis conducted by Wilson and Nash, but the district spokesperson still claimed that even though only 20 extended families receive half of its water supply, the district nonetheless “provides equitable water delivery service to all,” including small landowners, towns and businesses. The full text of this article, "The 20 farming families who use more water from the Colorado River than some states," can be found here.

The Lane Center congratulates Wilson on her groundbreaking reporting and detailed analysis, which reveals, for the first time, who the top individual and corporate farmers are in Imperial County. With ProPublica's data reporter, the team overlayed satellite soil moisture data on agricultural parcels and on owned and leased fields to identify which crops are being grown by whom. This method also gave the reporters accurate estimates of about 60% to 70% of the water being used by each farming family. 

Over a period of many months, and with great commitment and integrity, Wilson and Nash used Lane Center support to conduct a thorough examination of water ownership in the West. Deciphering the grip Imperial County farmers have on Colorado River water is a critical undertaking, likely to prompt additional investigations into the reasons behind an exclusive few holding a water allocation greater than entire states.

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Image Credit: Getty Images

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