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Very little of the iconic Colorado River's water actually makes it all the way to the Gulf of California. A new documentary explores threats to the river and some of the people trying to save it.
In a new documentary, Robert Redford tells the Colorado River’s epic story

Actor Robert Redford has always loved the landscapes of the West, and his classic roles as the outlaw Sundance Kid and mountain man Jeremiah Johnson are now part of Western lore. As executive producer and narrator of a new documentary, Watershed, Redford takes a close look at the greatest Western icon of all: the Colorado River, which flows almost 1,500 miles from its source in the Rocky Mountains to its delta at the Gulf of California. The river’s water, notoriously dammed and diverted in order to meet the region’s growing thirst, now rarely reaches the sea.

Watershed profiles several people who are trying to change the region’s relationship with the river, including a Los Angeles bicycle activist, a Navajo Nation councilwoman, a Colorado fly-fishing guide, and a restoration ecologist in Mexico. In short interludes, a crew of animators illustrates the fiendishly complex politics of the river, the mechanics of hydraulic fracturing, and other issues facing the Colorado Basin. The documentary, written and directed by Mark Decena, was co-produced by Redford’s son James, who also produced the HBO documentary Mann v. Ford and directed the new film The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia. (James is 50, but as you’ll see, his 76-year-old dad still calls him a "good kid.")

The new film screens at the Sausalito Film Festival on May 13 and is available through the Whole Foods-sponsored Do Something Reel online film festival this month. Robert Redford spoke about it with OnEarth contributor and longtime Western journalist Michelle Nijhuis. (Disclosure: Barry Nelson, a senior water policy analyst at NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, was an advisor on the film, and Redford is an NRDC trustee.)

Do you recall your first encounter with the Colorado River?

Well, I’ve had a lot of experiences on both the Colorado and the Green rivers -- fishing for golden trout in the high mountains, filming Jeremiah Johnson, floating the Green River, and having a boat on Lake Powell for 30-odd years.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and after the Second World War, people flooded in there like it was gold-rush time. Suddenly, the place turned into concrete and smog and pollution. That made a huge impact on me.

Robert RedfordI retreated into the Sierras and then into the deserts, the Mojave and so on. When that retreat began, I became aware of the value of the natural environment. So all those experiences -- working in Yosemite, floating the rivers, raising my kids on the rivers -- gave me a pretty good perspective on water in the West. I became acutely aware of the demand for water exceeding its supply.

What made you think that now is the time for a movie about the Colorado?

I realized that not enough people were paying attention to the issue. Water is a big subject -- like air, you know. People take it for granted. For years, people thought water was just an endless resource to be used by anybody in any way. When I became aware that the Colorado River was no longer reaching its destination in the Gulf of California, that really hit me. I went down into that area and saw the cracked earth. I saw what was happening to what used to be marshland -- that it was just drying up.

Then I became aware that cultures were suffering -- that Native American cultures and Mexican cultures on the south end of the river were suffering. That hit me, too. And I looked at where the water was going -- to dubious growth in Las Vegas. Las Vegas doesn’t have much water, and yet it’s growing in leaps and bounds.

The Colorado is an iconic symbol of America, of America at its best in terms of natural resources. Yet we’re destroying those natural resources. Not enough people know about that.

You’ve made many films with a political bent, but you’ve said that you’ve had to give up the idea that your films will make a difference. What do you hope to accomplish with Watershed?

I’ve given up the idea that I can really change anything, and I just do the best I can. It’s either that or do nothing, and we know that nothing doesn’t work.

Some of the films I’ve made in the past that I thought might make an impact, I don't think did. I don't think The Candidate [a satire of campaign politics] changed anything. I think politics are worse than they ever were. And Quiz Show [based on a 1950s Hollywood quiz-show scandal] was about the corruption in the entertainment business. Well, that’s as bad as it ever was.

In other words, you don’t want to deceive yourself. You just do what you can do the best you can, and you just keep doing it because that’s all you can do.

What do you hope that viewers will remember the most from Watershed?

I hope they’ll remember the people. The mayor of Rifle, Colorado -- I just love that guy. He’s so simple and plain and gentle. Then you have that crazy kid in Los Angeles, that guy with the bike. He’s so wild and crazy and smart and committed. You look at a guy like that and you say, "Boy, there’s a kid that could have gone the other way, but look at what he’s doing." He’s converting all his energy into doing something -- because he loves the city, and wants to play a role in it.

Maybe these people can set an example. I hope viewers will realize the value of the river through the stories of the people who live with it.

You’ve lived in the region for decades. Did you learn anything new about the Colorado River while you were making the film?

The one thing that’s always been very impressive to me is its history, how it got that way. I went to college for a year, to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then I was kicked out. One of the reasons I was asked to leave was that I was having too much fun -- I spent too much time in the mountains, and I didn’t spend enough time studying. But two courses really got my attention, and they were geomorphology and anthropology.

I got so taken with geology, just fascinated with how the earth got to be the way it is. When I would drive from Boulder back to Los Angeles, I was thrilled by the idea that wherever I looked, I could understand how it got that way, whether it was a mountain or a river or a valley. I think that’s probably where it all started for me, driving through that country and looking at what I had learned.

Then when I studied anthropology, I learned how people connected with the land in ancient times, and how we evolved to the point where people and geology came together and produced what we have today. I wanted to tell that story.

I wanted to ask about you and your son James. You worked together on Watershed -- how did that come about?

We’ve worked together on a couple of other things, and on his own, Jamie has moved in the same direction that I’ve been moving in over the years -- I think largely because of the way he was raised and the things he saw.

What was your partnership like?

It was great. He’s got a great sense of humor, so we can kid each other. I’ll tell him, "This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen." And he’ll say, "Next to yours, you mean." So we have a lot of fun. He’s a great kid, and I’m very proud of him.

image of Michelle Nijhuis
Michelle Nijhuis writes about science and the environment for National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other publications. Her work will appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, and she is a longtime contributing editor at High Count... READ MORE >
That is quite a delightful story about the Colorado River and its history. BUT, our entire food supply is being totally destroyed by GMO crops, say nothing of the FDA saying that US citizens don't NEED to know whether or not we are putting this contaminated and toxic food into our bodies. Europe has run Monsanto and Cargill out of their countries and Mexico (MEXICO for God's sake!!!) is trying to follow suite. But, here we are fighting like crazy to have the same rights and NOBODY cares. There are literally states who are SCARED to legally fight Monsanto, due to their money and their clout. There are organic farmers who are going out of business on a DAILY basis because their crops have been contaminated by GMOs. The President made a promise (among many) that he would demand labeling of GMOs. To date: Nothing, nada!! Big shock!! We in the US are losing our rights on a daily basis, and NOBODY is doing anything about it. So, why don't you do a documentary on this?