Documentary: “Killing the #ColoradoRiver,” Thursday, Aug. 4 — Discovery Channel #COriver

From The San Francisco Chronicle (David Wiegand):

Water is politics — you’ll hear that phrase used in the often-fascinating Discovery Channel documentary “Killing the Colorado,” airing Thursday, Aug. 4.

The film teams five award-winning directors to explore what happens when people alter the course of waterways such as the Colorado River. The impact of diverting, damming or otherwise interfering with how water flows can be felt far beyond the area immediately around the water. And in many cases, it has led to environmental fatalities…

California fostered the growth of its major metropolitan areas by taking more than its fair share of water from the Colorado River, whose watershed extends minimally into the state, but enough to make it perhaps too readily available…

As water has become scarce, the demand for it has increased along with the population. That’s simple math, but deciding who gets water and how they’ll get it is anything but simple. Water has become so valuable that several interview subjects declare that water is to the current century what oil was to the last.

In fact, the soaring value of water has sparked the rise of several companies that buy and sell water as they do with other commodities such as gold and pork bellies. Firms such as Water Asset Management have made the water business a billion-dollar industry.

The film is kind of a patchwork of chapters overseen by different directors, including Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt”), Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County: USA”), Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) and Alan and Susan Raymond (“Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House”).

“Killing the Colorado” is based on an investigation of water issues published through ProPublica by Abrahm Lustgarten, who appears with useful insight and commentary at various points in the film.

The film offers a detailed example of the implications of water diversion when it looks at a proposed project for the Gila River in Arizona. The river is the subject of a squabble between Arizona and New Mexico, which wants to use a greater share of the water. A diversion plan is in the works, but given how precious water is, especially in the American Southwest, opponents haven’t given up trying to block it…

The plan is going to be costly but will only benefit a relatively small number of people. At least that’s what folks on the Arizona side of the border argue.

We also see what happens when a community with water tries to make a buck off of it. In the case of Crowley, Colo., a lot of bucks. The town sold so much of its water that it decimated its own economy and went from being one of the state’s better-off areas to one of its most impoverished…

Farmers have always been either victims or scapegoats in water issues. They are often blamed for water shortages because they are by far the dominant consumers of water in this country. Yet, to get an idea of how little clout farmers have with regard to water decisions, just drive along Interstate 5 in California, especially as it cuts through the Central Valley. You’ll be greeted by signs along the road expressing outrage at Congress for leaving farmland high and dangerously dry.

Alfalfa, for example, is one of the best ways of feeding cattle. If farmers can’t grow alfalfa, it affects dairy farming and the beef cattle industry. Yet they are targeted for growing a plant that needs a lot of water to thrive.

However, if we think of water as a regional problem for the West, we’re missing an important point. Much of the food Americans consume is grown in California, which is slowly emerging from a drought. The Imperial Valley, in the southeastern part of the state, is part of the Colorado watershed. If someone in New York complains about the cost of a fresh kale salad, they can direct their irritation at the scarcity of water in the West.

“Killing the Colorado” is very good. It isn’t comprehensive, though, and parts of it are so clogged with arcane information, it’s sometimes hard to follow. Or swallow, as it were.

Nonetheless, the film is an eye-opener, even for those who think they already know how serious the country’s water problems are.

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