When environmental activist Erin Brockovich was a little girl, her father told her that water would become more valuable than oil because there would be so little of it. In the documentary Last Call at the Oasis, Brockovich and an array of scientists present a compelling case that that day may be dawning now, and not just in developing countries where water scarcity and water-borne illnesses are a prevalent.
Most of the stories in Last Call at the Oasis are told by people living or doing research in the United States, which has the highest total water consumption in the world. The film shows reservoirs running dry in overdeveloped cities. Aquifers being depleted by agricultural use. Ground water contaminated by toxic chemicals. Rivers and streams polluted by chemical run-off. Jessica Yu’s documentary, produced by Participant Media, the creators of An Inconvenient Truth, aims to raise public awareness about a problem most Americans don’t even know we have — water scarcity.
Behind the problem of water pollution and scarcity lies the unknown impact of climate change on the one percent of drinkable water on the planet. Is climate change responsible for the recent widespread incidents of drought? If so, will it exacerbate water scarcity in the future?
The documentary will screen at Film Streams on Tues., Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. to be followed a panel discussion moderated by Engineers Without Borders that will include three local experts: Buey Tut, Executive Director of Aqua Africa, Joel Christensen, Vice President Water Operations at the Metropolitan Utilities District and John Gates, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at University of Nebraska Lincoln.
Environmental crises require solutions. Two local chapters of EWB, one at the UNO and another comprised of professional engineers, have already brought clean water systems to villages in Uganda and Madagascar. Tut started his own non-profit, Aqua Africa, to do similar work in his native South Sudan. Tut will discuss his strategy to dissuade poor countries from repeating the mistake of over-consumption made by their richer neighbors, including Nebraska.
“With the Platte River bone dry across much of the state this summer, and another Supreme Court decision pending on the Republican River, we have some vivid reminders that our water resources are stretched thin,” said Professor Gates. “But that is just the tip of the iceberg. With ever-increasing demands for food and fuel production and growing cities, contamination issues from a range of sources, and the threat of disruptive climatic changes, our water challenges are stacking up in many ways.“
Director Jessica Yu is a native of Palo Alto near California’s Central Valley where a quarter of the nation’s food supply is grown. Agriculture accounts for eighty percent of water consumption in many states. In a telephone interview, Yu said the most troubling thing she learned was that the Central Valley will deplete the aquifer underneath it in a mere 60 years at current rates of consumption. “That will affect my children in their lifetimes,” she said. “The timeframe for these consequences to land on our doorstep is so close.”
It’s a cautionary tale for Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer. “Nebraska is fortunate to have one of the best aquifers on the planet, and we pump it more than any state in the nation,” Gates wrote. “Can we keep it up? What needs to be done to protect it? How can individuals best save water?”
According to Joel Christensen, this summer’s drought caused Omaha consumers to use historical amounts of water. “During July 2012, we pumped just over 6 billion gallons of water into our system. The previous record was 5.5 billion gallons in July of 2007. In July of 2011 we pumped 4.2 billion gallons,” he wrote in an email.
And that water has some level of contamination from the herbicide atrazine which impacts the human endocrine system. It is the most common contaminant in groundwater and public water systems, particularly in the Midwest. Five states — Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa — sued the manufacturer Syngenta over traces of atrazine in their public water supplies. Researcher Tyrone Hayes has shown in laboratory experiments that atrazine turns male frogs into females. Endocrine disruptors are important in studying the cause of breast and prostate cancer. The EPA is currently studying atrazine to determine if it should be banned in the United States, but a decision is not expected until 2013.
Christensen indicated Omaha’s highest average for atrazine in 2011 was 0.22 parts per billion (ppb) at the Platte South plant, 0.13 ppb at the Florence plant and 0.12 ppb at the Platte West plant. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for atrazine, from the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, is 3 ppb based on an annual running average.
The documentary ends on a hopeful note, highlighting water-sharing agreements in the war torn Middle East. “There’s no doubt that humanity is capable of screwing things up,” muses scientist Peter Gleick. “But, we’re also capable of fixing things when what we’ve screwed up is really important to us.”