Fresh Water or Almonds? Californians Can’t Have Both


"There once were men capable of inhabiting a river without disrupting the harmony of its life," the late conservationist Aldo Leopold insisted. That's not us apparently, director Jacob Morrison contends in his convincing new documentary, River’s End: California's Latest Water War. According to the experts showcased here, California is not just running out of fresh water, what’s available is being horribly managed in favor of profit and greed. 

Just ask Alan Bacock, a member of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, who notes that the Paiute tribe lived in harmony within California's Owens Valley until settlers invaded with the mindset: "Land is for humans, water is for humans, therefore I'm going to [t]ake my piece." They put up fences and blocked out land, which meant starvation for the Paiute people. Living in harmony with a river became a thing of the past.

If you really want to learn about California's water crisis, and the messy politics behind it, be well rested and ready to pay close attention to River's End. To fully process the information shared in the film, I watched it in two sittings -- but it was worth it. The documentary is a scathing reminder that big agro, big corporations, and a majority of the politicians don’t really care about you or the environment: They care about profit. Densely packed with interviews, data, some animation, newsclips, and picturesque scenes of California's famously gorgeous vistas, Morrison makes painfully clear that these landscapes are in imminent danger.

California is known amongst the US states to be more radical in its approach to protecting the environment. The 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act targeted greenhouse gas emissions and outraged automakers, for example. But what we learn is that unless we look somewhat hard, little is really being done to salvage the state's fresh water. For example, when the 2011-2014 drought hit, California's metropolitan areas were told to significantly reduce their water usage. ‘Drought Shaming’ even became a thing. But big agriculture was booming during this time, and agriculture uses far more water than you may realize: According to the movie, 80% of California's fresh water goes to agriculture and it's lauded as vital to the state's survival. Agriculture realistically only makes about 2% of the state's GDP.

Still, agriculture is shown to be epically important to California, thus receiving a disproportionate amount of the freshwater supply. So while some of the state's biggest exports (we’re looking at you, almonds) received hefty amounts of fresh water during that drought, citizens were told to shower less and get fake plants. This tale is yet another example of how individuals are often told to change their behavior because they’re the sole cause of the problem and only they can fix it.

Salmon fisherman Mike Hudson believes that's all bull: "We could never flush our toilets again and never let the water on again while brushing our teeth, but for what? For 4% of water savings, when all that water we're saving has already been sold to the irrigators so that they can grow the export crops and ship them to Europe and China and make a buck on it."

What River's End pretty explicitly lets you know is that in reality huge industries and politicians are to blame for sucking up valuable resources for profit. And they're not sharing! Neither the wealth nor the water! Politicians can do something about it, but when will they?

The film's most endearing, and perhaps heartbreaking quality comes from interviews with the residents living in areas where water is being extracted from and then exported. Between geographic explanations of California and clips of Gavin Newsom offering a "solution" to the controversial twin Delta pipelines, local Californians reminds us who and what is being most affected: fishermen, farmers, families who've been in the area for generations, indigenous communities; the environment, the 3-inch delta smelt… the list goes on.

River's End is a sobering, fascinating look at what really happens to California's fresh water. While the film might at times seem overloaded with factoids, all pertinent, Morrison does so to build a watertight case that California's time is limited if the state doesn't change its ways. . . and that applies to the rest of the world, too. You can't help but come away convinced that W.H. Auden was right when he warned, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." - Gabrielle Segal

(River's End has been released on VOD as of November 2nd in the US, UK, Canada and other key territories.

Ms. Segal is an environmental activist, world traveler, sister, friend, and cat mom.

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