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Distorted Documentary

Mar 20, 2017

National Geographic Documentary Distorts California’s Water History

There is no easy narrative when it comes to California water, but the producers of National Geographic’s newly released documentary on our state’s water system seem to think there is. The filmmakers relied on a Hollywood trope to tell the complicated story of California’s water history and water rights. Any idea what that trope might be? You guessed it – the film Chinatown. Yes, really.

The film’s title Water and Power: A California Heist should give you an inkling as to its perspective. But before I get into the film’s distortions, I’d like to explain why I agreed to be interviewed for the project.  I believe this generation of water managers has lots to be proud of. Over the past 20 years we’ve transferred a large bulk of responsibility for water supply to local and regional governments.  Once heavily dependent on imports, these areas now rely largely on local resources, which is good for water supply and the environment.

I wanted to tell this story, and I thought I had – until I saw how little of my comments the producers chose to use in their simplistic narrative on our state’s complicated water history.

Some background: The filmmakers reached out to me in late 2015, saying they wanted to talk about “privatization” of water, which they later linked to the Monterey amendments to State Water Project contracts. I knew the topic was controversial, but I believe the Monterey amendments were a key element of the transition to local resource development.

The Monterey amendments allowed the State Water Contractors to take more responsibility for their future.  The amendments laid the foundation for local storage projects such as Diamond Valley Lake, groundwater partnerships in Kern County, and the Kern Water Bank itself. Under the negotiated amendments, agricultural contractors agreed to give up 175,000 acre-feet of contract rights (which still is unprecedented), 45,000 acre-feet without compensation. Some 130,000 acre-feet were sold permanently to M&I contractors. The amendments contained fair provisions to allocate water in a way that gave agricultural interests better access to limited dry year supply and M&I interests critical access to wet year supply for storage programs. The amendments also gave M&I interests rights to store water outside their service area. Under the amendments, Kern Water Bank lands were transferred to Kern County, and eventually went to local districts that agreed to give up the 45,000 acre-feet for free.  These complicated negotiations were conducted entirely by public servants working for public agencies governed by elected boards who are responsible to the public. 

The producers of the National Geographic documentary knew all of this, because I told them.  However, there is virtually no information in the film about what the Monterey amendments actually did.  The film completely ignores or distorts the facts in order to promote the simplistic narrative that a for-profit farming operation wound up with the Kern Water Bank “for free.” Never mind that this was decided locally in Kern County long after the negotiations were final. Never mind that the eventual managers of the Kern Water Bank gave up $45 million in contract rights without compensation. Never mind that they never sold a of water to urban areas. Never mind that the Kern Water Bank has been used almost exclusively to provide water supply to irrigate crops in the local agricultural economy.

The National Geographic film doesn’t tell these stories, unfortunately. But it does contain powerful footage of everyday families who don’t have adequate drinking water – a fact that we find unacceptable and are working to fix. There really is no connection with the Monterey amendments, however. The film also loses credibility because of its Hollywood-esque depiction of the negotiations themselves, replete with shadowy images of men in cowboy hats clinking cocktail glasses. I was in that room and there were no cowboy hats and no alcohol. In fact, every negotiator involved in the process was a public employee. And, then, of course, there’s the film’s interspersing of scenes from Chinatown throughout, as though Monterey had something to do with the fictional Noah Cross. It doesn’t.

It’s a bit sad that after all the progress we’ve made in managing water enormously better, the story should fall into the wrong hands.  Well, those of us who have put in the long hours and taken the risks to create new, innovative approaches to water management in California know what we have done – as do our colleagues, families, and friends.