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A “Call To Arms”: Inside NatGeo’s Deeply Troubling “Water & Power: A California Heist”

The battle for water is not just happening in a far-off desert across the globe. It’s right here at home.

A “Call To Arms”: Inside NatGeo’s Deeply Troubling “Water & Power: A California Heist”
Lost Hills, California: Pipeline allegedly owned by Stewart Resnick, bringing water from Dudley Ridge to Lost Hills. Photo: Ted Gesing, courtesy of Nat Geo

In California’s drought-ridden Central Valley, impoverished farmworkers with poisoned tap water live alongside reservoirs of privately-owned water intended for farming.

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How that evolved is a case-study in greed and corruption, one that Emmy Award-winning documentarian Marina Zenovich knew about peripherally. But diving into the subject for her latest film served up a rude awakening.

Water & Power: A California Heist—which airs on the National Geographic Channel tonight—unveils how a handful of wealthy agribusinessmen and speculators seized control of dwindling groundwater reserves as a historic drought left more than a million residents without access to safe drinking water. The maneuvering risks the future of California farmlands, which provide nearly half the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Executive produced by Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney, the film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s somewhat of a departure for Zenovich, who’s best known for profiles of people, most notably Roman Polanski and Richard Pryor.

“I decided to make this film because I thought it was Chinatown, the documentary,” she says. “I’m interested in human beings, their behavior, and what people will do to get what they want. I’m originally from Central California, and know the issues with water, but I didn’t know them deeply. What I discovered is a lot’s going on that we don’t know about. So I hope the film is a call to arms for everyday citizens to see what is happening with our water and how it’s being privatized without us knowing it.”

“When I went to East Porterville, I asked what other journalists had been there and it was all Europeans and the Japanese,” says Zenovich. “And I was like, ‘What? This is the international story that’s being put out there? Why do I live in LA and I haven’t heard this story?’ It is Third World-like in California and it shouldn’t be. And it’s all connected.”

The film takes viewers into the lives and homes of local victims, to hear a young couple’s fears of starting a family for lack of water and children describing drinking water that tastes like blood. “I don’t think you get it until you’re in it,” she says.

“It’s what the guy says at the end of the movie: ‘Watch out, you’re gonna be next.’ That stuck with me,” she says. “How do we know what’s going to happen? It’s a multi-layered problem. We live in a desert with too many people. We need to grow crops, but how much is too much? What are the right and wrong crops? When do you put in infrastructure? It’s cities vs. farmers, big vs. little farmers, environmentalists vs. farmers. The signal we’re getting from Washington is, there’s a superclass who don’t have to follow the rules.”

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Despite the complexity, the film deftly guides viewers through a labyrinth of corporate maneuvers, attempts to fight them, and the resulting impact on residents and state economy.

“This movie is just scratching the surface,” says Zenovich. “I could make movies about another five different issues in my movie. That’s the problem with water. It’s incredibly dense. The biggest challenge creatively was linking everything. You have to have the history, but you have to show the victims, the people who aren’t getting the water.”

“At one point, the editor said, ‘If you let me take this part of the movie out, I will give you one week of my pay. It’s too frigging confusing!’ I’m like, ‘This is so important. Please!’ she says, laughing. “That’s what we were up against.”

Zenovich was able to funnel some of that footage into a short film to appear on the NatGeo site about Enron’s purchase of a parcel of land with an aquifer in nearby Madera, California. “It’s the story of the little guy vs. big business told from a farmer’s point of view. And it all just comes back to greed and capitalism.

“I’m continuing to follow the story,” she adds. “And I’m hoping the film will motivate people to do something and pay attention.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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