When former newspaper reporter Mike Taugher died while he was on vacation in Hawaii with his family last month, California lost an incredible asset when it comes to understanding the state's most precious resource: water.

For 12 years, Taugher covered the environmental beat for the Contra Costa Times. That meant covering the Delta, and rivers that feed it, and the mountains where the snow pack builds, and, of course, the scoundrels who want the water for themselves.

Along with the late Marc Reisner, author of the definitive book on the water wars of the American west, "Cadillac Desert," Taugher was one of a handful of journalists who spent a considerable chunk of their careers building a base of knowledge about water and the politics and power behind it.

What I loved about Taugher was that he went about his reporting the right way: always digging, always firing off public records requests to some obscure water boards in Fresno or Kings County, or a Freedom of Information Act Request to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or the EPA.

He knew the stories he was after weren't in what people would squawk at him on the phone or blather at a news conference. Taugher possessed what I often call "a document state of mind." He knew where to find the most obtainable version of what passes for government truth in the 21st century.

Documents would rise in stacks from his desk and he would be quietly bent over a report, quietly reading, always reading it seemed, a pen in hand, underlining pages, taking notes.

I often could not resist saying something cheesy to break his reverie. "Hey, Mike. How's the water?" or, "hey, is the water still wet?" and he would laugh and go back to reading and note taking.

Taugher followed the water -- and the money -- to incredible stories: A rich farmer buying water from the government at a low price and then selling it back at a high one. Or a federal official making water policy that helped her family's ranching business. She resigned.

His understood that the fate of a tiny fish -- the Delta Smelt -- was a key indicator of the health of the Delta and eventually the ability of all of us to draw water from a tap.

Last year, Taugher left newspaper work to join the state Department of Fish and Game.

People should be naturally suspicious of journalists who cover government one day and then leave the profession to work for the government, or politicians, the next. Just how cozy were things before the switch? What favors were done, or stories not reported? What basic ethics were ignored to get a cushier and better-paying job? What public trusts violated?

But when Taugher went to Fish and Game, there was no sense at all of those things. Not with Mike. Not him. It is impossible to think of him compromising himself in that way. Going to the state just seemed like the progression of his career and love of the environment. It was as if newspapers, and all they endured in the last six years, the slashing, the shrinking, simply couldn't contain him anymore.

He needed a bigger platform, and traveling around the state speaking about the environment and helping to shape policies to protect it was it.

At Taugher's funeral a few weeks ago, state Natural Resources Secretary John Laird read an email Taugher fired off to water regulators shortly before he left the Times. It ripped into the government for failing to provide information for a story, for stonewalling, ducking, not doing its job. The kind of thing that doesn't help reporters land a job.

It was the kind of thing good reporters like Taugher do all the time. They face up to power and have the confidence not to blink.

Always challenging, always pushing, always thinking, always looking for the next revelatory document, Mike Taugher always did this job the way it was meant to be done.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper. He teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, Freedom of Information Committee. Reach him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.