When Robert Redford speaks, I listen


A dignified Eastern lady who enjoys spending days at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and nights at the theater, my grandmother doesn’t know, or care, very much about water issues in the West.

But when the phone rings in her apartment, she often shoots me a sly look and remarks, “that must be Robert Redford, just checking in.” For that reason alone, she might like “Watershed: exploring a new water ethic for the new west,” the Redford Center’s slick new

documentary on the plight of the Colorado River and its forsaken delta, narrated by the heartthrob himself. 

The film bounces around the Colorado River watershed, introducing us to a Navajo councilwoman, fly fisherman and small-town mayor, among others, all doing their part to reduce their water footprint. In between the interviews, Robert Redford tells us about the Colorado’s water woes, his voice layered over beautiful hand-drawn animations that illustrate the facts.

There’s not much new here: the Colorado is over-allocated, we’re screwing over Mexico, and small-scale solutions like organic gardening and grey water recycling can make a difference.

But the filmmakers manage to hold my attention by shifting between interviews, animations, gorgeous time lapses and juxtaposing shots of trout-filled streams near the river’s headwaters with images of unnaturally green golf courses in the desert outside Los Angeles.

And of course, there’s that voice. That deep, deliberate and, if you're my grandmother, sexy, voice brings a degree of authority to the film it might otherwise miss, since it fails to feature any water policy experts. When Robert Redford speaks, I listen to what he says: we are using too much water.


In order to illustrate this point, the filmmakers focus on the Colorado River delta. Without water, the delta is a barren place—mud flaking in the sun, salt-rings on dry irrigation canals and parched grasses. To blame are the big dams of the last century, the Colorado River compact, and ourselves. If everyone cut their water consumption by five percent, Redford tells us, that could boost the river’s flow just enough to allow it to once again reach the sea.

The filmmakers decided to focus on the water-deprived delta because of its symbolism. “The fact that it doesn’t reach the sea is the most dramatic physical manifestation of the basin being in trouble,” said director Mark Decena.

Part of the problem, the film argues, is our ignorance about how much water we use and where it comes from. Agriculture and mining use more water than we would think. And people in Denver, Los Angeles and other thirsty megacities are sacrificing the health of the river for their green lawns and golf courses.

But there are solutions, albeit small ones. The filmmakers show us a ranch outside Durango, Colo., that doesn’t pollute its streams, a bike messenger in LA who engineered a grey-water bath tub, and guides on the Green River who are teaching teenagers about water issues in the West.

The idea, according to Decena, is to inspire people to reduce their own water footprints without being preachy. One way to do that was to keep the policy wonks and experts out of the film, using Redford’s narration and quirky illustrations to convey the facts but have real people tell the story.

“Ultimately it’s probably going to reach more people if we have characters a greater audience can relate to,” he said.

And who can't relate to the Sundance Kid?

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Photo courtesy watershedmovie.com

Disclosure: Robert Redford is a long-time reader and donor to High Country News.

Carol Gauden
Carol Gauden
Aug 18, 2012 02:04 PM
Green lawns and golf courses in the Southern California area are, of course, an absurd use of water but not the major culprit.

It's August 18th, 2012 and I'd like to give Robert Redford a birthday present if I may. There's nothing better than the Truth and this is it! We can talk, debate, write and protest all we like but until, and unless, we "quit the meat" that's causing the water disappearance, then nothing's going to change.

If the ranchers and farmers would, at least, use a drip system to water their crops rather than the incredibly wasteful irrigation system, that at least would make some sense. But no, channels of water are let loose to grow crops that then feed the animals that are destined for slaughter.

We're not powerless! Our appetites will either continue to condemn the earth, as the animals are already condemned, or we can alter our appetites and put nature first. It's so simple . . .

Happy Birthday, Robert. Let your heart feast on this Ultimate and Foundational Truth!
Cindy Salo
Cindy Salo Subscriber
Aug 21, 2012 11:37 AM
Keeping our water use in line with our supply is a complex issue in the West. The solution might not be as simple as quitting meat.

Data from the USDA indicate that that little of the main crops raised to feed animals grown for meat is grown in the West. About 40% of the corn crop is fed to animals, of which less than 2% is grown in the 11 western states. About 30% of the soybean crop is fed to animals in the U.S. and the USDA doesn’t show any being grown in the 11 western states. Most of the corn and soybeans are grown in the rain-fed Midwest.

More consumers are finding that pasture-raised and -finished animals that are consumed locally can provide more ecologically sound meat than the usual model. The usual model finishes meat animals on corn- and soybean-based feeds and uses fossil fuels to move animals and feeds relatively long distances.

Perhaps more worrisome than trends in meat production are trends in dairy production. (Although dairy cattle end up as meat after their milking career, this is not the main objective of dairy operations.)

The small dairy farms in rain-fed areas of the Midwest and East that I worked on in the 1970s have nearly disappeared. These are being replaced by large dairies in the West. The small dairy farms raised the forage and grain to feed their cows and returned manure to the same fields. Large dairies use fossil fuels to ship in feed, including large amounts of alfalfa hay, and accumulate manure, short-circuiting nutrient cycles.

Over 40% of the nation’s alfalfa hay was grown in the 11 western states in 2008 and nearly all of it was irrigated. The University of California-Davis reports that alfalfa is the state’s largest user of agricultural water. Most of the irrigated alfalfa hay produced in the West is fed to dairy cows in large dairies, which makes our cheese and ice cream major consumers of water.

There are few things lovelier than a center pivot-irrigated alfalfa field at sunset in the West--unless it’s a bowl of ice cream. Although both of these are currently economically successful, they are ecologically frightening.

Before we can move toward more ecologically and economically sound approaches to water management in the West, we need to have a clear idea of where we are now.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Aug 21, 2012 11:40 AM
Thanks for your comment, Cindy. If you are interested in the rise of the Western dairy farm, I detailed this shift (which started in Los Angeles, surprisingly) in the second section of an article about dairies that I wrote last October for High Country News. http://www.hcn.org/issues/4[…]iries-to-clean-up-their-act


Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor.