Back Forty: A crash course in California water politics

Photo courtesy Giant Pictures.

When farmers turned the San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural powerhouse in the 20th century, they dammed and drained its central river. When that didn’t provide enough water, they dug wells and pumped aquifers dry. When that still wasn’t enough, they siphoned water from Northern California’s river systems and brought it south to thirsty farmland.

Today, the San Joaquin Valley—a flat tract of land in the eastern part of the state that’s more than twice the size of Massachusetts—ranks among the most productive farmland on the planet. As groundwater is pumped from drying wells, the land is also sinking at a rate of a foot per year in some places, and some towns don’t have any water at all. Now, as climate change intensifies California’s grueling drought, San Joaquin Valley ag producers still say they don’t have enough water. They’re also growing more water-intensive crops like almonds and pistachios than ever before.

“My grandfather told me a couple things about water,” says Brett Baker, a fifth generation pear farmer in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta who’s featured in the documentary film, River’s End: California’s Latest Water War. “He said, ‘there may come a day, son, when you’ll have to go sit on that [water] pump with a shotgun.’”

Released on streaming platforms earlier this month, River’s End is an urgent crash course on the water wars that are shaping California—and, by extension, the U.S. food system. Viewers get a primer on California’s major rivers and salmon runs, then watch as agribusiness—and the city of Los Angeles—wreak havoc on them, with moneyed interests seizing water through lobbying and shady deals.

Director Jacob Morrison focuses on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a network of marshy sloughs in the north of the state where California’s major rivers converge, then pour into the San Francisco Bay. Two-thirds of Californians get their drinking water from here. Now, officials are planning to build a massive underground tunnel system that would suck water out of the delta and ferry it south to thirsty cities and farmers. Supporters say the project would update aging infrastructure and be better for the environment. Morrison is not one of them. According to the many experts he interviews, the tunnel system could destroy the delta for good—a rich ecological habitat that sustains several endangered species. The film says it could also taint the San Francisco Bay Area’s drinking water with salt.

“We don’t want to turn the delta into Lake Erie and have it shut down because it’s not suitable to drink and your dog dies if it goes swimming in it,” says Kate Poole, senior director, Water Division at Natural Resources Defense Council. “But that’s what’s going to happen if they operate this the way they plan to.”

A filmmaker with a strong point of view, Morrison is not particularly interested in giving screen time to Big Ag or its supporters. You won’t hear much from the almond farmers River’s End criticizes, or from the Metropolitan Water District, the massive coalition of Southern California water districts that delta residents accuse of trying to steal their water supply. Embattled family farmers and environmental advocates take center stage, and the documentary is at its best—and most galvanizing—when it leans into its muckraking tone.

When Morrison asks a series of experts what they think of the tunnel project, their cagey reactions feel like something out of a ’70s conspiracy thriller.  “I’m not allowed to talk about it,” says one water policy expert. “Can we turn off the camera for a second?” asks an environmental attorney, after shooting a timeout sign.

River’s End has other blindspots; it touches on farmworkers’ experiences in the San Joaquin Valley only briefly without mentioning that an increasing number live in communities without potable water, or with limited or tainted water supplies. Still, the documentary does an impressive job of making California’s convoluted water crisis visceral and accessible to an audience that might be unnerved to learn where their water comes from. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the water wars in a state this urban, which makes a film like River’s End essential viewing.