Chronicling California’s Water Wars and Woes

In Review: River’s End: California’s Latest Water War

The Dakota Access, Line 3, and other pipeline struggles shine a spotlight on the importance of water, and on the threat that oil drilling and fracking pose to life-giving rivers and lakes. Jacob Morrison’s documentary River’s End: California’s Latest Water War provides an earnest, in depth look at the ongoing battle over water — where it comes from, where it flows, and who controls it in the Golden State. But instead of a pipeline multinational like Enbridge or a petroleum company like BP, Chevron, or Exxon, according to River’s End, a top culprit diverting and “stealing” California’s water is none other than Big Agriculture.

The picture River’s End paints of California’s water system isn’t pretty, as elite Golden Staters connive to relocate, transfer, and funnel water to benefit urban areas and the Central Valley, the hub of California’s agriculture. Photo of dry riverbed by Giant Pictures.

Morrison packs lots of information into his comprehensive 81-minute film, using tried and true documentary techniques to tell his extremely informative — if sorry — story. News clips and archival images feature politicians and captains of industry, including President Kennedy, California Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, and civil engineer William Mulholland. There’s a procession of talking heads — academics, activists, officeholders, bureaucrats, attorneys, corporate mouthpieces, rank-and-file farmers and fishermen — in presumably original interviews shot for River’s End.

Some of these interviews include former Democratic Congressman George Miller, who chaired the House Natural Resources Committee and The New York Times called “a liberal lion”; Kate Poole, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Senior Director, Water Division; and Julie Zimmerman, the Nature Conservancy’s lead freshwater scientist. The narrator for River’s End is the gifted Cherokee actress of stage and screen DeLanna Studi.

The picture Morrison paints ain’t a pretty one, as elite Golden Staters connive to relocate, transfer, and funnel water from their points of origin to benefit urban areas and the Central Valley, the hub of California’s agriculture, a $50 billion a year industry. The manmade creation of this patchwork network water supply system, with its aqueducts, dams, channels, proposed tunnels, et cetera, is a sordid saga. It includes secretive land speculation, ecosystem disruptions, despoiled habitats, the extinction trajectory of species such as salmon and smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, increasingly scarce orca whales in the San Francisco Bay, once thriving yet now unemployed fishermen, drought, and much more.

River’s End contends that through industrial-scale farming, which has edged out family farms, Big Ag has turned agriculture into yet another extractive industry, raising and reaping gigantic herds and harvests that are, literally, thirsty for water. California is the number one agricultural producer in the country. Eighty percent of the Golden State’s human water use goes to agriculture.

book cover thumbnail

One particular crop is especially water intensive. In the Central Valley, one million acres are dedicated to almonds. An astounding 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, and most of the almonds are exported. Each nut requires a gallon of water to grow — water the state simply can’t afford.

One of River’s End’s most compelling commentators is water protector Alan Bacock, a member of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, who reveals the harrowing tragedy of Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada. Owens Valley was once an Edenic enclave where the Paiutes lived and thrived — until American settlers and ranchers arrived on the scene. Eventually, in the early twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles acquired the rights to the water in the Owens River and sucked the valley dry. Owens Lake dried up, and according to the film, is now the biggest source of dust pollution in the US.

At one point, the documentary shows a scene from Roman Polanski’s stylish 1974 detective movie Chinatown, featuring Jack Nicholson and John Huston. The film was inspired by the events at Owens Valley. It’s a pity, however, that first time helmer Morrison didn’t take a tip from Polanski’s film noir classic, as much of his nonfiction chronicle has elements of a real-life whodunit. Rather, River’s End’s storytelling style is quite dry, and its tale is told in a very conventional, straight forward way. Its reportage could have used some pizazz, as in investigative reporter Greg Palast’s 2016 documentary The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which cleverly incorporates film noirish genre conventions, such as Palast wearing a private eye-like trench coat.

Nevertheless, even if it’s not especially entertaining, Morrison’s fact-filled directorial debut is an indispensable guide to the politics of liquid gold in the Golden State, where the golden rule is those who have the gold make the rules.

River’s End was released in the US, Canada, and UK on November 2. Video on demand platforms include Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu (US, Canada, UK). Cable platforms: InDemand TVOD (Comcast, Spectrum, Cox), DirectTV/AT&T and more (US).

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

The Things We Find

The wilderness holds our best kept secrets and treasures, throughout all the years of our lives.

Chris Riley

Food as a Portal—to Myself

In my blood is a culture that is inextricable from its food. How could I reclaim this after years of denying myself this birthright?

Ayu Sutriasa

The Elusive Hippos of Zimbabwe’s Hippo Valley

Amid sugarcane fields, small earth dams provide refuge for the water-dependent animals.

Cecil Dzwowa

Climate Denial is Waning on the Right. What’s Replacing it Might be Just as Scary.

The wrapping of ecological disaster with fears of rampant immigration is a narrative that has flourished in far-Right fringe movements in Europe and the US.

Oliver Milman The Guardian

“The Garden Seems to Draw People Together”

Across New York City, community leaders are turning vacant lots into food-producing havens for people and wildlife.

Zachary Schulman

Looking Closely

Examining the beauty and cruelty that abound in nature while acknowledging its inevitable extinction.

Lucille Lang Day