Water and the Transformation of Nature (1997)
An American four-part documentary series about water, money, politics, and the transformation of nature.
The film chronicles the growth of a large community in the western American desert. It brought abundance and the legacy of risk it has created in the United States and abroad.
The first three episodes are based on Marc Reisner’s book, Cadillac Desert (1986), that delves into the history of water use and misuse in the American West. It explores the triumph and disaster, heroism and intrigue, and the rivalries and bedfellows that dominate this little-known chapter of American history.
The final episode, is drawn from Sandra Postel’s book, Last Oasis, (1992) which examines the global impact of the technologies and policies that came out of America’s manipulation of water, demonstrating how they have created the need for conservation methods that will protect Earth’s water for the next century.
The Mercy of Nature, the third episode of the CADILLAC DESERT series, traces the fierce political and environmental battles that raged around the transformation of California’s Central Valley from a semi-arid plain into the most productive and environmentally altered agricultural region in the history of the world.
In the 1920s, farmers discovered a centuries-old aquifer under the land and began massive pumping efforts that decimated the existing water supply. Enter President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the little-known Bureau of Reclamation, funding the giant Central Valley Project, the largest water works in history. Yet much of the land irrigated with federally-subsidized water was not cultivated by small farmers as reclamation law required — but by large corporations that benefited illegally from the boon.
With agriculture stretching CVP water to the limit by 1960, California Governor Pat Brown initiated the State Water Project, whose scale nearly equaled that of the CVP. By 1974, the Central Valley was producing 25 percent of America’s food — but much of the profit was captured by giant agri-business companies that bought taxpayer-subsidized irrigation water at extraordinarily cheap rates. As they had for decades, “pork barrel” water projects continued to roll through Congress.
Jimmy Carter was the first president to mount a serious effort to slow the juggernaut of dam building. His investigators uncovered huge cost overruns, environmental threats, and devastating poverty among the farm workers who kept the big farms in business. But caught in a fight for his political life after the failed rescue mission for hostages in Iran, Carter retreated from water reform in the Central Valley. Says Reisner, “He failed to see how water flows uphill toward power and money.”
In the mid-80s, the combined effects of bird deformities caused by toxic water run-off from farms, Congressional investigations into water subsidies, and a six-year drought began to turn the tide of public opinion. In 1992, an urban-dominated Congress finally addressed the enormous thirst of California agriculture — which was, in effect, creating an artificial drought for nature and cities alike — with a water reform law.
Today, the Central Valley will never again be the same; nearly all the corporate farms have left the valley, along with some smaller farms. The growers that remain must now wrestle with new restrictions on their previously unchallenged water rights and usage.
This recording comes from old vhs tapes, and the quality is messed up in places. But, it is nearly impossible to find copies of the original series anymore. Just a single copy of the first episode is for sale on amazon, and the guy selling it wants $1000!! Or you can watch it here for free 🙂