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'Last Call at the Oasis': Why Time Is Running Out to Save Our Drinking Water

A new film provides a much-needed wake-up call for Americans: Our false sense of water abundance may be our great undoing.
 
 
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The first voice you hear in the new documentary Last Call at the Oasis is Erin Brockovich's -- the famed water justice advocate whom Julia Roberts portrayed on the big screen.

"Water is everything. The single most necessary element for any of us to sustain and live and thrive is water," says Brockovich as her voice plays over clips of water abundance -- gushing rivers and streams. "I grew up in the midwest and I have a father who actually worked for industry ... he promised me in my lifetime that we would see water become more valuable than oil because there will be so little of it. I think that time is here."

The film then cuts to images of water-scarce populations in the world: crowds of people at water tankers, stricken children, news reports of drought in the Middle East, Brazil, China, Spain.

The images are heart-wrenching and alarming ... and so are the ones that come next, which are all in the U.S. Water parks, golf courses, car washes, triple shower heads, outside misters -- all point to our folly when it comes to water.

We live with a false sense of water abundance and it may be our great undoing. Even though the film opens with Brockovich's prophecy that water is more valuable than oil, Last Call at the Oasis mostly focuses on how we've yet to grasp this news. The film, which is the latest from Participant Media ( Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., Waiting for Superman), delves into our addiction to limitless growth, our blindness to pressures from global warming, and the free pass that industry and agriculture get to pollute.

The narrative of the film, which is directed by Jessica Yu, is driven by interviews, historical footage and some outstanding cinematography. We're taken to Las Vegas, so often the starting point for discussions of our impending water crisis. We see a receding Lake Mead, learn that Hoover Dam may be close to losing its ability to generate power as water levels drop, and that the intake valve for Las Vegas' water supply may soon be sucking air.

We hear from Pat Mulroy, Las Vegas' infamous water manager, about a plan for the city to pipe water over 250 miles from a small agricultural community. The town of Baker, population 150, looks to be on the sacrificial altar for Sin City. As Mulroy says, it is a "project out of sheer desperation." But that will be little consolation to the folks in Baker. Or to the rest of us. Because what we learn next is that "we're all Vegas."

Phoenix and LA also face water pressures, as the Colorado River strains to meet growing demands. The film shows hotspots like the California’s Central Valley, where 7 million acres of irrigated agriculture have turned near desert into the source of one-quarter of the nation's food -- at a steep environmental price.

California is often warned it will be the next Australia, where a decade of drought has devastated the agricultural sector. At the peak of Australia's drought, the film tell us, one farmer committed suicide every four days. We meet families who are struggling to save their farms, faced with having to slaughter all of their animals. The scenes of heartbreak in Australia are one of the few times in the film the narrative ventures outside the U.S. Mostly the storyline is focused on America's own evolving plight.

We see Midland, Texas where a community is stricken by cancer from hexavalent chromium in its drinking water. A reoccurring voice throughout the film is Brockovich, who works as a legal consultant all over the U.S. for communities that often find themselves powerless in the face of industry pollution. "There are 1,200 Superfund sites the EPA can't deal with," says Brockovich. "The government won't save you."

 
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