Sustainable Dunn and UW-Stout's Sustainability Office hosted several screenings of the documentary film “Last Call at the Oasis” this week at UW-Stout’s Harvey Hall, the Menomonie Library, and at the UCC Church. The film, produced by ATO Pictures and Participant Media developed by Jessica Yu, documents how the global water crisis will be the central issue facing our world this century.
The scientists interviewed for the documentary agree that by the year 2025, more than 50 percent of the world’s population will not have access to clean water. It is not surprising that the United States has the largest water footprint in the world — and that clean water here is reaching immediate shortages.
Las Vegas is one of the most critical areas in the United States right now. The businesses along the strip use only 3 percent of the water in Las Vegas, while the rest is used by households which continue to increase. Right now, Lake Mead is only 40 percent full and at the current rate of water usage, the Hoover Dam will no longer be able to produce energy in only four more years.
Right now, 36 states face water shortages in the next six years. We can no longer approach the health of our freshwater as an infinite and inexhaustible commodity. Of all the water on the earth, 99 percent is considered unusable for human consumption according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Another example in the film was the Central Valley in California. Twenty-five percent of the food in the United States has historically come from this area because the government provided water for the farmers in this previously desert area. Suddenly, a small fish (the Delta smelt) became endangered and the water was no longer allowed to flow from the Sierra’s into the Central Valley.
Farmers were forced to go to ground water for irrigation and in only a few decades, we are depleting that resource also. In most states, 80 percent of water usage is by farmers and that percentage can go up to 90 percent in some states.
Predictions are that by the end of the 21st century, there will be no snow left in California due to global warming. That further complicates an already critical problem.
California is facing a water crisis right now of epic proportions which is similar to the current problems faced by Australia, also plagued by drought and wild fires. They have to rethink agriculture there as prices no longer cover the cost of production.
Australian farmer suicides due to the loss of their livelihood have reached an average of one farmer suicide every four days. Studies in the U.S. are predicting more drought in some areas, and in some cases, more area flooding.
Everyone thought our water issues would be resolved with the passage of the Clean Water Act, but pollution is increasing. Our water treatment plants do not treat the water that goes back into our streams and rivers for chemicals and antibiotics.
Another concern is that domestic wells are currently not tested for chemicals. One example given in the film for water contamination was atrazine which was the number one herbicide used in the world until five years ago. It has poisoned many wells and is a known hormone disrupter. It has been shown to cause defects in frogs and fish who live in the contaminated waters and the same hormones affect people causing breast cancer and birth defects.
The industry is mostly self-regulating, giving us even more reason to be concerned about the quality of our waters. Currently the EPA controls only five chemicals out of 80,000 which may cause pollution to our waters.
Erin Brokovich, who moderated the documentary, pointed out that even if we set standards for chemicals in the water, that there’s no one around to enforce it. She states that the EPA is broke and can’t do anything about the remaining “Superfund” sites for cleanup.
The film also spoke about the “Halliburton Loophole” in the Energy Policy Act, a controversial clause that excluded nearly everything used in fracking from being regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, thereby threatening our groundwater sources.
The movie ended on the rather dire prediction that in the future we will all rely on “recycled water” as the solution to our current water shortages. This simply means that the sewage treatment plants will remove the solids and treat our sewage so that it will be “drinkable” again. Other than the “yuck factor”, our astronauts are already doing that when in space. Recycled water will be a necessity in Los Angeles by the year 2019.
We are still waiting for an EPA decision on atrazine, which is predicted to happen in 2013. Many are drinking bottled water assuming it is more pure than the water coming from our faucets because they are not aware that this is also self-regulated. Cricket parts, mold and other contaminants have been found in bottled water.
The bottom line in the movie is that “the more we know, the more likely we are to do the right thing”. By necessity, we all live in a contaminated world. In the words of Brokovich, “We are at a pivotal moment — we can do the right thing!”
For all of us living in an area with already “impaired waters”, the message of this outstanding documentary was very clear: Those who have the privilege to know have a duty to act.
Peggy McAloon is a Colfax resident and retired commercial credit finance consultant.