Summer has only just begun, and more than 60 percent of the United States is in some state of drought. The Southwest states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California are particularly hard hit. The primary source of water for the region is the Colorado River, a white water marvel that rises in the Colorado Rockies and meanders through the Mojave and Sonoran deserts before reaching the Gulf of California. Farmers, oil and gas extraction firms, and the mushrooming Sunbelt cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, and Los Angeles all make their claim on the Colorado’s waters. The famous Hoover Dam—just one of 29 hydroelectric sites along the river’s highly managed 1,500-mile expanse—did its part to tame the Colorado’s unsteady flow, but it also allowed upstream consumers to use more water than rain and snowmelt can replace. The Colorado hasn’t reached its delta in more than a decade, and as the sole source of fresh water for the 30 million residents who live in its watershed, it has become the region’s most overexploited resource.
This story of the Colorado and how we can preserve it is at the center of “Watershed,” a new film produced by Robert Redford’s Redford Center and Kontent Films. “Watershed” shows the Colorado through the eyes of a diverse group of people who depend on it: a fly fishing guide; the mayor of Rifle, Colorado (population 9,764); a Los Angeles native; a small-scale farmer; a restoration ecologist working to restore the depleted delta; a Navajo council member; and a group from the education nonprofit Outward Bound. These actors’ alternative approach to river use tacks more toward respect and preservation than exploitation. Some, like the fly fisherman and the farmer, rely on the river for their livelihoods; others, such as the mayor and the LA native, view its preservation as the legacy they will pass on for their children.
These human stories are juxtaposed with vista shots of canyons and rapids, and short animations that illustrate points such as how we use water to extract natural resources, and how livestock rotation builds topsoil.
The challenge of saving the Colorado is huge. Despite conservation efforts in urban areas, population growth continues to negate their effects. Even as industry gets more efficient, new techniques such as hydraulic fracturing generate new demands on water supplies. Production of water-intensive crops and livestock is increasing. And the tools built to manage the Colorado, storage reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, contribute to water loss through evaporation.
But “Watershed” is a hopeful film. Its central thesis is that if we return just two percent of the Colorado’s flow, we can return the river to the delta, and that we—water consumers—can make that happen by changing our behavior. The main actors in the film are offered as role models that you can follow or support, and the film’s website offers links to National Geographic’s Water Footprint Calculator, which you can use to determine your water use and make a pledge to decrease your footprint.
These tools empower us to take action, which is important. Most climate discussions feel so large and remote that it is very difficult to feel that personal action will produce impact. Water consumers are a diverse group, and the film is trying to reach a broad range of them. The animated sequences are ready-fit for a high school social studies class; the fly fisherman’s ambivalence about climate change is geared to the skeptic; the artisanal farmer is framed to reach the grocery shopper. This scattershot approach expresses at once too much ambition and not enough. One film is not likely to reach all these types, and even if it did, their collective impact would make a fraction of the difference that a five percent supply chain water use reduction by a corporation like General Mills would. Imagine if food processors committed to saving water in their own facilities and rewarded suppliers (industrial farmers who grow and raise the vast amount of corn, soy, and livestock that the processors buy) for actively reducing their water footprint.
Without the power of Coke, Starbucks, or Wal-mart to spur a change in practice, most suppliers will have little incentive for change. Agricultural users consume 80 percent of the Colorado’s flow, and even a cursory glance at the National Geographic Water footprint reveals that most household water use comes not from the water we consume directly in our homes, but indirectly through the water used to produce the food we eat and the energy we use. The film speaks convincingly to the importance of us conserving water individually. But it does little to equip viewers to affect the industries that cause the bulk of the damage. For the filmmaker, the actors, or any of us, to make a mark, we will all need to aim higher.