'Oasis': Thirsting for Hope at the Art House

Heal the Bay president Ruskin Hartley spends a night at the cinema.

I don’t normally go in for depressing documentaries. But when the local art house is showing a documentary on water around the world (“Last Call at the Oasis“), followed by a panel discussion with some of my friends and board members at Heal the Bay, I will make an exception.

The recent screening at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre presented moving stories from Las Vegas, Texas, Australia, Israel and right here in California that painted a pretty grim picture of our water woes around the world. Pesticides are bleeding endocrine disruptors into water, turning male frogs into females. Kids are getting lesions from swimming in water polluted with fracking chemicals. The aquifer below the great Central Valley is being bled dry from unregulated wells. Mix in the disruption of climate change and you have a depressing narrative. As one of the scientists summed up: “We’re screwed.”

But amid the doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope. Some of these glimpses appeared in the film, others were shared by the panelists. For years I have been hearing about water wars. Turns out the concept is a fallacy. A social scientist had studied wars over the past 50 years and found that water had actually brought warring sides together even as conflict raged.

And think we’ll never be drinking recycled water? Think again. Singapore already meets 30% of its potable needs through cleverly branded “new” water. Turns out recycled water is more regulated and safer than bottled water. The answer? Put “new” water in bottles and sell it as “porcelain springs” with a slick campaign!

Better water policy often boils down to local communities coming together to stand up for their local water sources and solve problems in their neighborhoods, communities, cities and states. Take Santa Monica, as an example. Tired of waiting for the state or federal government to clean up groundwater contaminated with MTBE and other noxious chemicals, it took matters into its own hands and sued the oil companies responsible for the pollution. The result? $250 million to clean up local groundwater. Local water supplies in Santa Monica have shot from zero percent to 72 percent in a few short years.

We need to take that approach at every level. And we can’t wait for it to happen to us. We just need to get it done.

Our cities and state can start to invest in local water today. We should be cleaning up groundwater. We should be capturing stormwater to recharge our aquifers and irrigate our lawns and golf courses. (Of course, it’d be better if we started moving away from having to maintain water-intensive lawns and gardens, but that’s the subject for another post). And we should be recycling more waste water — as David Nahai said, “It’s only waste water if we choose to waste it.” (David sat on the panel with fellow boardmember Mark Gold, the former longtime president of Heal the Bay.)

And on a personal level, we can work to reduce our water footprint in a number of ways: installing low-flow fixtures, capturing rain in rain barrels, installing simple and cheap grey water systems to re-use water from washing machines to water the garden.

 I turned my sprinklers off before the rain started to fall. Did you?