We Are Not Immune to the Water Crisis

I grew up in Northern California. We never had a lawn; we let the hillside go brown in drought years. We had a bucket in the shower to catch the water that came out before it got warm. In starting Last Call at the Oasis, I was somewhat smug in feeling that I knew something about water issues.

I realize now that all I really knew was drought. I didn't factor in climate change, groundwater depletion, contamination, outdated water laws, the battle between industry and the environment, etc., etc. All of which made this production a continually eye-opening experience for me. A sampling: we learned that there are estimates that that the aquifer in the Central Valley, which produces a quarter of our nation's food, might be depleted in as little as sixty years. One third of U.S. counties face water shortages by 2050. And of the more than 80,000 chemicals used in the United States, many of which end up in our water supplies, only 5 are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act. What's going on is big, and it is crucial that we understand it. This is water -- essential for all life. Could the stakes be any higher?

In the U.S., we tend to think of "the water crisis" as a problem for other countries, but as we show in Last Call, we are not immune. By the interconnected nature of the resource, the crisis is global, its impacts domino-like. We shouldn't feel insulated just because water flows freely from our taps.

But we do feel insulated, don't we? For a while I contemplated calling the film A River in Egypt, but I realized that the problem isn't denial -- which implies willful dismissal of facts -- but ignorance. Water problems barely register on our list of concerns.

This lack of awareness is the enemy for some of the most memorable characters in Last Call at the Oasis: the scientists and researchers who have been working in the trenches, studying the stresses on our water supply, from overuse to pollution. I found these scientists both fascinating and admirable, not just because of their findings, but because of their willingness to extend themselves beyond the traditional scientist's role. Their job description does not include holding press conferences and trying to sound the clarion call, but the scientists in the film realize it is not just enough to publish their work in a scientific journal. It's the "tree falling in the forest" syndrome: have you done your part, if you put out work that will never reach the public? No, says James Famiglietti, who studies groundwater depletion. As he told us, "If you smelled smoke in a crowded theater, you would shout."

Our film is about these personal stories -- of people smelling smoke and standing up to say something. People like activist Erin Brockovich, or farming-grandmother-turned-water-sentinel Lynn Henning. For over 20 years, Brockovich has been on the ground, helping communities facing water contamination and the David-and-Goliath-type dynamics of the struggle to hold polluters accountable. Henning has no scientific academic background, but when livestock factory farms polluted the waterways in her rural Michigan community, she learned how to be a water tester and began to monitor the contamination herself.

If we have Erin and Lynn on one hand, we have millions of the happily oblivious on the other. In making the film, I became increasingly fixated on the psychological underpinnings of the water crisis. Problems like drought, pollution, contamination, competition for resources, and privatization are nothing new; they're as old as civilization. And yet we fail to handle them in any consistent, systematic way.

We may assume that "someone" will come take care of our water problems. But in one five-year period, the EPA was only able to respond to 3 percent of the half-a-million reported violations of the Clean Water Act. This is not to say that the EPA is the bad guy: the agency is underfunded, under-supported, and its hands are often tied. If there is a bad guy, it's probably us.

We don't want to pay more for water. We like our green lawns. We worry that environmental regulation will hurt economic development. We'd rather shell out for bottled water than an upgraded water treatment plant. We find the notion of recycling wastewater from drains and sewers disgusting rather than practical.

But we adjust when we have to. When a news story pops up about a drought-stricken town having to truck in water, the idea of potable recycled water seems a bit less radical. Or when a giant sinkhole implodes an intersection, we're suddenly a little more interested in replacing the leaking pipes beneath our own city streets. The question is whether we will address our problems preemptively -- the cheaper, easier way -- or whether we will wait until an emergency forces our hand -- the painful way. There are myriad ways that we can help alleviate the stresses and lessen the threats to our water supply. But until we acknowledge that there is a problem, we can't progress.

Which is not to say that Last Call is a lecture. It's a series of journeys... through the eyes of those who are on the ground, wrestling with circumstances that may face all of us. It's my hope that the total effect is more empowering than overwhelming, as the process of making this film was for me.

At the Toronto Film Festival, Program Director Thom Powers deemed it "a feel-angry movie." He later amended it to "a feel smart movie." I like both labels, as they emphasize the "feel" part. We had hoped Last Call would be an emotional film, not just an educational one. We wanted to bring water problems into the open, to show the impact on the lives of real people -- to bring these oft-hidden abstractions into the light of day where we can finally see what's going on.

Jessica Yu is the director of 'Last Call At the Oasis,' which opens in select theaters on May 4 in New York and Los Angeles before rolling out nationwide. Watch a trailer for the film at www.lastcallattheoasis.com.