'Last Call at the Oasis': Why Time Is Running Out to Save Our Drinking Water
"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."
For all our clean water laws, we aren't very good at enforcement. From 2004 to 2005 an investigation found that the Clean Water Act was violated more than half a million times. It's not just industry, but pesticides like atrazine, which we learn can be detected in the rain water in Minnesota when it's being applied in Kansas. In Michigan we see another awful side to Big Ag, the liquid waste from factory "farming," known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These CAFOs threaten drinking water with chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones.
So what do we do in the face of these threats to our drinking water? Apparently we buy bottled water -- which the film details is not only potentially less safe (it has different regulations from tap water) but is environmentally destructive as well.
There are a few bright spots in the film, including strides that have been made in Singapore and other places to recycle water for drinking. (We could at least start in the U.S. by recycling water for re-use in toilet flushing, irrigation and other non potable uses.) And we get to see a hilarious behind-the-scenes look at an advertising company trying to come up with a campaign to pursuade Americans to drink recycled water. Porcelain Springs anyone?
If you don't know much about water issues, the film is an essential wake-up call. And judging from the way Americans use water, this film looks like it should have a large audience. It covers a lot of ground, but how well?
"Last Call offers a few solutions but -- except for a segment on recycled wastewater -- little about how to traverse the tangled political, social and economic pathways to achieve them. In fact, at times its 'stars' show the exasperation and resignation that comes from years spent seeing the tires spin in the same wheel ruts," writes Brett Walton at Circle of Blue. "With so many problems to choose from, some worthy candidates are excluded and some issues are insufficiently explored, but the writers make good use of the material they have selected. They explain technical issues, while never losing sight of the lives that are affected."
Overall the film is beautiful and compelling but misses the mark in one important place -- it fails to address energy in any meaningful way. There are split-second clips of tap water being lit on fire (fracking!) and what looks to be a flyover of a mountaintop removal mining site, but the filmmakers never talk in depth to any of the people who live in our energy sacrifice zones in this country. What about the devastation in Appalachia and the growing threats from fracking and tar sands extraction?
The issues of energy and water are inextricably linked. It takes energy to move and treat water and it takes water to keep our lights on and our cars running. The more we ignore the reality of our fossil-fuel addiction, the more we become tethered to a future of climate chaos -- droughts, floods and more turbulent storms. It'd be nice to see a film about U.S. water issues that starts in West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Nebraska instead of Las Vegas. This is the most significant lost opportunity in a film that will hopefully have a large reach across the country as it imparts its other important messages.
Look for a screening near you and check out the trailer below.