Redford film puts water back into river

“Where do you think your water comes from? When you drink water from a water fountain here in Berkeley, what river are you drinking?” I attended a water talk recently and the speaker already knew that we wouldn’t have a clue about the answer. Where does our water come from?

When I lived in India, I usually knew where my water came from—either I pumped it straight from the ground right by the house or it came from the river a few blocks away. I could see the water source. I had a connection with it. I swam in it. When I pumped it either by hand or machine, I controlled its extraction. However, most of us in Berkeley don’t have that experience. Water comes to us by the press of a button, the turn of a knob or by intermittent infrared sensors in restroom faucets which shoot water at us from hundreds of miles away.

Apparently this is an issue for all of California: Water out of sight and out of mind.

Southern California Watershed

“Southern California Watershed” (Shannon)

“The Colorado is California’s forgotten river,” said Barry Nelson last Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club. The funny thing is California gets more water from the Colorado River than Colorado does. Furthermore according to Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, the Colorado is “ground zero” for climate change and water issues in the US because of the huge impact changes in the river could have on the West.

Another thing that people aren’t usually aware of is that the Colorado River stops. It just stops. The river flows through seven states in the US and two in Mexico and dries up before reaching the ocean. What was once a flowing delta has now become a desert. Maybe that doesn’t really matter to us because that’s stuff that happens over the boarder. Again, out of sight, out of mind.

And this is where James Redford comes in. Yes, his name should sound familiar, and so does the voice on the film he promoted at the Commonwealth Club. His father, Robert Redford, narrates on the documentary, “Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West.” Redford (the younger) joked after presenting a short clip of the film, “We do have a great narrator, I must say.”

The Redford Center uses film and storytelling to get people excited about issues like what is happening with the Colorado River. Since its release last year, “Watershed” has been shown in 43 film festivals and 300 community screenings around the world. Jill Tidman, who produced the film with Redford, emphasized how people feel disconnected to so many things and how people need to understand where their water comes from. The film seems to be working.

Redford recalled his favorite moment when after one screening a little boy went up and tugged on his shirt, saying, “That’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” This boy’s reaction was significant for Redford since it meant that the documentary resonates with a greater audience. Plus, he emphasized, this whole project is for our children, our future.

Just last month, the Redford Center along with other major NGOs launched an online campaign called “Raise the River,” and from the vibe of the event last Wednesday, it seems like the river is about to rise. “It’s not only achievable, but it’s achievable in our lifetime,” said Maria Baier, CEO of the Sonoran Institute.

Watershed Film event at Commonwealth Club

Right to left: Maria Baier, Jill Tidman, James Redford and Barry Nelson at the Commonwealth Club last Wednesday (Hyun)

The pieces have already come together. A major piece of the puzzle is the signing of Minute 319, a bi-national agreement between the US and Mexico to increase the flow of the Colorado River by one percent. This along with the cooperation of multiple NGOs and other groups (including Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die) in addition to local community participation means we may see Colorado and the Gulf of California reunited with our very own eyes.

The Colorado connects states, ecosystems and even nations together. Raise the River’s effort is just a small incremental step in a huge interconnected web of relationships. Plus, there are a ton of unanswered questions: What about water rights of Mexican farmers? Who gets displaced? How will water impact the present ecosystem?

Though the uncertainties remain, Redford’s campaign shows us that it is possible to put the pieces together to do something significant now. If there’s a lesson from this about water management that the Bay Area can learn from… that’s not for me to say. But I am a bit jealous of how sexy water looks due to all of this attention.This brings us back to our connection with water and how we are so indifferent to water and just how sexy and alluring she is. We don’t even bother to find out her name or where she’s from.

It’s Mokelumne, by the way. The Mokelumne River. That’s where Berkeley’s water comes from. If you didn’t know that, then don’t feel too bad. A lot of people don’t… but now you know. And, I’m sure now there is something in the knowing.