Our Elysium: Matt Damon, Robert Redford, and the Colorado River

I know tap water can taste bad -- I taste it everywhere I go -- but can it also make you sick in the United States? At 2 a.m. in the hotel and with gurgling intestines, I was deciding if I should dissolve alka seltzer in that tap water or not.
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"We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one." -- Jacques Yves Cousteau

The movie Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, didn't get amazing reviews, but I really liked it. I thought it was a good allegory not just of a likely future we may face, but of many things about our current situation, even here in the U.S.

If you haven't seen Elysium, it's a futuristic movie about how wealthy people create a large orbiting satellite in space on which the air and water is clean, everyone is healthy and has free health care, and where the very wealthy people live and play. On earth down below, the hordes and masses struggle, sweat, kill each other, and live amongst environmental catastrophe and squalor across the landscape. Matt Damon plays the hero role; Jodie Foster not so much.

Damon, if you are not aware, also plays a hero in real life, creating an organization called Water.org that is trying to bring clean, drinkable water to a billion people in countries across the world that are suffering from the effects of polluted water. Drinking tainted water can not only make you sick, it can kill you, and so people who work to keep water clean are real-life heroes for which Hollywood allegories are not even needed.

And so when I walked out of the airplane in the Phoenix airport last week, to attend a Colorado River fundraiser headlined by another actor and activist Robert Redford, I made my usual bee-line for the drinking water fountain near the terminal gate. But the water from the fountain tasted awful -- kind of a briney, fuzzy first taste with a weird after-taste I couldn't identify. I'm a Colorado River activist and a clean water advocate by profession, and I like to drink tap water for a host of reasons, the biggest of which is to compare tastes around the Southwest U.S. and to make sure both rivers and drinking water are clean and healthy.

I was in Phoenix representing the Save The Colorado River campaign, which works to do just that. Over the past year, the United States and Mexico, as well as a group of environmental organizations, had created an agreement to put some water back in the bone-dry Colorado River Delta where the river no longer meets the sea. Most people in the U.S., and even across the Southwest U.S., don't' know it but every drop of the Colorado River's 5 trillion gallons of water per year are totally drained and diverted out by farmers and cities. South of the U.S. border below Mexicali used to lay the Colorado River Delta containing 2 million acres of wetlands, a fly-way for millions of migratory birds, and life-giving habitat to villages of Cocopah Indian people -- all of which are now 95 percent completely gone, dead, zero, nothing, replaced by sand dunes and baked earth as far as the eye can see. The river and the natural and human culture around it have been drained bone dry and destroyed.

But the Phoenix event provided a glimpse of hope in this bleak wasteland. Last year, Robert Redford, his son James, and their Redford Center created a movie called Watershed, which depicted the plight of the Colorado River and offered some hopeful opportunities to restore the river all along its 1,500 mile journey from the mountains near Denver to the end of the river at the Gulf of California where the river is dry. The Save The Colorado River campaign provided funding to the Redford Center for a film tour throughout the Southwest U.S in order to raise awareness. The tour was a huge success with thousands of people seeing the film and taking action by reaching out to policymakers. The agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and environmental organizations is to buy some water from farmers, run that water back down the last stretch of the river, and restore a small sliver of the Colorado River Delta. Mr. Redford, who has long advocated for restoring the Colorado River, jumped on board and has taken a lead role in raising money to buy the water. The event in Phoenix was the launch of that fundraising campaign for the "Colorado River Delta Water Trust" -- $10 million is needed; $3 million already raised.

The second day I was in Phoenix I identified the after-taste in the Phoenix tap water about the same time my stomach began to twist in knots. It was mold -- a distinct and disgusting taste there hanging on the back of my tongue. All the while the outdoor temperature reached 110 degrees, baking everything, ratcheting up the thirst, only cooling down to 109 degrees at about 9 p.m. and 92 degrees at daybreak the next morning. I know tap water can taste bad -- I taste it everywhere I go -- but can it also make you sick in the United States? At 2 a.m. in the hotel and with gurgling intestines, I was deciding if I should dissolve alka seltzer in that tap water or not. A quick Internet search and sure enough I found myriad complaints about the taste and quality of the Phoenix tap water and a even an official denial from the City of Phoenix -- which provides this water to 1.5 million people -- trying to assure the public that the water was safe to drink. The moldy taste, said the City, was from algae that grows in the water pipes, but the City also assured the people that the algae is removed, merely its odor remaining in the water.

I was not assured, and the next morning I bought 2 liters of bottled water, and after drinking much of it felt much better.

At the event in Phoenix, Mr. Redford spoke as did his son James. Eloquent and gracious, they told the story of the Colorado River Delta and their work and leadership to restore it. The Mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, also spoke, as did the Mexican "Father of the Colorado River Delta" Roberto Salmon-Castelo. It was extremely important to have buy-in from so many elected officials on both sides of the border, a true effort and agreement of international statesmanship and compromise -- in part led by former U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar -- that took 5 years to put together and bring to fruition at this event. There is hope for getting water back in the river and there is hope for the Colorado River Delta.

But south of the border in Mexico, you can't drink the water because it will make you sick. North of the border in Phoenix and beyond -- actually in many places throughout the Colorado River basin in the Southwest U.S. -- people who can afford to buy bottled water generally don't drink tap water at all. At the top of the basin in Colorado and Wyoming, concerns about fluoride, nitrates, chlorine, heavy metals from acid-mine drainage, pesticides, prescription drugs, and fracking chemicals all keep some people buying bottled water and avoiding tap water. Lower in the Colorado River basin, those concerns are only amplified -- in fact the Colorado River itself is used many times over, flowing through city wastewater systems and livestock feedlots and then back to the river to be diverted out and into another city's water filtration plants and then to faucets, and over and over again along its 1,500 mile journey. In Phoenix, the tap water comes from several sources including the Colorado River, some of which involve hundreds of miles of open canals that run across and through the landscape picking up even more pollutants along that journey. And then the City of Phoenix has the difficult task of filtering out those pollutants and piping the water to faucets through hundreds of miles of underground algae-growing pipes baking in the 110-degree heat.

My 2-liter bottle of water cost 49 cents at Whole Foods and was worth every penny. But what if you can't afford a dollar a day per person in your family for bottled water? What if you can't get to a store to buy bottled water? What if it's 110 degrees out, you're poor, you don't have air conditioning or a car, and you're thirsty, as are thousands of people in Phoenix every day?

You drink the foul-tasting tap water, that's what. And the same is true in Tucson and San Diego and Los Angeles and Las Vegas and other cities throughout the Southwest U.S.

Should well-off people in the Southwest U.S. get to drink clean, healthy, bottled water while poor people have to drink questionable "public" water that is diverted out of polluted, drying-up rivers and smells and tastes like mold?

Was Elysium an allegory, or is it already here in the U.S.?

Getting clean, healthy water flowing in rivers again in the U.S. and beyond is not just an environmental issue, it's a public health issue and a social justice issue, because the water cycle and the life cycle are one, for everyone.

You can learn more about the Colorado River Delta Water Trust here.


Gary Wockner, PhD, directs the Save The Colorado River Campaign.

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