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.

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