For something so fundamental, the average North American’s understanding of water is woefully shallow. Clean water is consistently rated as a key environmental issue, but tell the average person that in America the water coming from some taps is so toxic it can be lit afire, or that there are cities that will be out of water within the next five years, and the response has seemed to be mainly disbelief or denial.
In Last Call at the Oasis, which premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons: The Life of Mark O’Brien) aims to jolt people out of indifference by weaving together the many ways in which the planet’s most valuable resource is being threatened.
Yu was intrigued by the ability to shed light on the tension between the poetic and serene associations with water and the shocking revelations she knew she’d encounter in delving into the subject. “I think everyone values water but we don’t always act that way,” says Yu, who spoke to Co.Exist at the Toronto festival. “We think it’s someone else’s problem; it’s such an abstraction.” So she set out to remove the abstraction of a global water crisis out and add humanity in through a structured mosaic of relatable stories.
Produced by Participant Media, the company behind Food Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth, and based on The Ripple Effect by author Alex Prud’homme (My Year in France), the film brings together leading experts including Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, author Robert Glennon (Unquenchable) and hydrologist Jay Famiglietti to explore this issue from quantity and quality standpoints. And much like Food Inc., the film doesn’t sugarcoat a bleak situation:
To tell the quantity side of the story, Yu starts in Las Vegas, the poster-child for excess and the impact of rapid population growth. The city of 2 million–with 40 million annual visitors–relies on the Colorado River for its water. But the city’s breakneck development has taken a serious toll on the Colorado and its main reservoir, Lake Mead. With Lake Mead only 40% full, it’s estimated that Vegas will be without water within five years.
Scripps researcher Tim Barnett is more to the point in the film: “The amount of water being taken out of the Colorado system is maxed out right now, and yet there’s going to be less. If we don’t do anything, Las Vegas is a dead city. Period.”
One of the film’s central figures is Erin Brockovich, the famed crusader who exposed highly toxic levels of hexavalent chromium in Hinkley, California in the early ’90s.
In Last Call at the Oasis, Brockovich visits Midland, Texas, a town impacted by fracking. Levels of hexavalent chromium are higher in Midland than what Brockovich found in Hinkley, but due to the so-called “Halliburton Loophole,” companies are exempt from disclosing chemicals used in the process and citizens are left with water that is literally flammable.
As part of her efforts to build awareness of various pollutants, Brockovich has started an online map of over 2,000 contamination sites in the U.S. and Canada with the hopes of prompting momentum through conversation. “People are telling me that 12 kids in the same grade 6 class have cancer or that 29 neighbors have lupus,” says Brockovich. “Those are red flags that something’s wrong, so I started to plot all this information on a map so people will see the problem and start talking with each other.”
As to the obvious question of why such grievous environmental offenses have been allowed to happen, the film points to a toothless Environmental Protection Agency, which Brockovich deems “broke and broken,” and a government with an unflagging focus on repairing the economy.
“We absolutely care about the economy but I want us to back up to what is it that sustains us, what is it that sustains our economy,” says Brockovich. “People and the planet. The oil comes from the earth. The gas they’re fracking for comes from the earth, the water they’re using comes from the earth. We’re depleting all these supplies and we’ll see what happens when the economy comes to a halt.”
With such a sweeping issue, it’s difficult to provide concrete solutions. Yet the most comical part of Yu’s film comes when looking at a very real but decidedly taboo solution: recycled sewage water. In Singapore, NEWater’s reverse osmosis process and ultraviolet technologies effectively convert sewage water to clean drinking water, and a number of U.S. counties are using recycled water. But in America the toilet-to-tap idea has generally hit the ick ceiling. To challenge the public’s assumptions about bottled and recycled water, Yu enlisted a marketing firm and comedian Jack Black to present different iterations of recycled water to consumers, many of whom gleefully gulp it up until it dawns on them what Porcelain Springs really means.
“When people connect their knowledge, it not only helps people know what to do, but reinforces the willingness to change,” says Yu. “If everyone takes a shorter shower or puts their bottle of Fiji down, the cumulative effect could really have a big impact. And that’s no small potatoes.”