August 25, 2016--New documentary offers a sharp look at the West’s water crisis (High Country News)

In 1922, seven Western states agreed to divvy up the water in the Colorado River, paving the way for giant dams, reservoirs and aqueducts to move and store it. Over the next century, the arid region, prone to erratic storms and punishing droughts, saw farms and cities grow and grow — with the belief that the water they relied on so heavily was inexhaustible. But the Colorado River Compact, as the agreement is known, contained a serious flaw: the states overestimated how much water flowed through the river, which begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, running southwest for 1,450 miles, before entering the Gulf of California in Mexico.  In nearly a century since then, roughly 40 million people have come to rely on an allocation of water that doesn’t actually exist. That miscalculation underpinning management of the West’s most important river is one of the many manmade errors that have contributed to the region’s current water crisis. That crisis and, more specifically, its human origins are the subject of a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, which premiered Aug. 4 on The Discovery Channel. Based on the award-winning series by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, the film examines the Colorado River’s growing inability to deliver the water that farmers, cities and entire ecosystems across the West rely on. While a prolonged long dry spell has exacerbated current shortages throughout the region, the film posits that most of the scarcities were not caused by nature but by short-sighted policies and poor planning. That leaves a harder question: if the real problems are manmade, can’t we find a way to fix them?

The film begins in one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas, California’s Imperial Valley, where huge farms blanket what was once a desert. The transformation was made possible by water from the Colorado River, piped 80 miles across the desert through the All-American Canal. But in California, Imperial Valley farmers are coming under increasing scrutiny for using the vast majority of the state’s water — a pattern that repeats throughout the West, where roughly 80 percent of the available water goes to agriculture. Blaming farmers for using so much water becomes suspect, however, if you’re sitting in New York in the middle of winter, eating an organic kale salad. The greens, as one farmer points out, probably came from the Imperial Valley. For audiences not accustomed to finger-pointing, such examples create an uncomfortable reckoning, as well as an iteration of the film’s central theme: that the water crisis is everyone’s doing. The film offers plenty of painful moments, nowhere more so than in its discussion of the Salton Sea. Created by an accidental breach in an irrigation canal, the sea has been kept full for decades by drainage from Imperial Valley farms. But as farmers find ways to use less water, the Salton Sea shrinks, exposing dry beds of toxic dust. The result is an impossible dilemma: Conserve water and worsen the region’s sky-high asthma rates, or keep it full by using the region’s scarcest resource? To view the full article visit High Country News.