Recent drought conditions in the Western U.S. have decimated the reserves of the Colorado River and led experts to question whether shortsighted policies and poor planning are to blame for the region’s most severe shortages.
Presented with New York-based journalism organization ProPublica, Discovery Channel’s Killing the Colorado serves as a visual essay to Abrahm Lustgarten’s (pictured, below) reporting for ProPublica, and explores three intersecting issues surrounding the Colorado River, which supplies more than 40 million Americans with water across seven states.
The film investigates conflicts between agricultural and urban demand for water in California’s Imperial Valley; the inefficiencies of dams and canals; and Wall Street’s intervention to present an innovative solution to localized water shortages. It also features insight from senior research scientists, water resource experts, federal government officials, industrial farmers, and state leaders including Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor.
The Telling Pictures- and Discovery Studios-made film was intended from the outset to be an omnibus project due to the pressing nature of environmental issues.
With last year’s California drought worsening and prediction models expecting the Colorado River not to abate this year, Discovery Channel’s John Hoffman says there was urgency in the need to get boots on the ground and filmmakers into the hardest hit communities affected on an institutional level.
“We really wanted this film on [television] as quickly as possible,” explains the executive VP of documentaries and specials for Discovery, Animal Planet and Science Channel, noting a production window of approximately six weeks. “We wanted to have it be a vérité film as much as possible and work with vérité filmmakers who really understand how to go deep with their characters.”
To accomplish such a task, Hoffman recruited five Academy Award-winning filmmakers in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who serve as executive producers; Barbara Kopple, who directs Farming the Desert; Alan and Susan Raymond, who direct Water for Sale; and Sundance-winning director Jesse Moss, who helms Dammed if You Do.
When taking an omnibus approach, extra caution must be taken to ensure that filmmakers are not duplicating content. To safeguard against inefficiencies, the filmmaking teams were asked to present their research before heading into the field to find characters and pitching them to Epstein and Friedman, who would then lay out the storyline as a whole.
“We started with Abrahm’s reporting and then we broke that down into broad subject areas before coming up with potential stories that would illustrate each of the subject areas,” Friedman recalls. “In one or two cases, we were able to find the specific stories and characters, and then we brought on the filmmakers and asked them to take on one of the three stories.”
Epstein and Friedman conceptualized much of the framework for Water for Sale prior to the Raymonds having boarded the project, thus allowing for minimal overlap between stories, according to Susan Raymond.
The film – the third installment of the omnibus project – tracks Disque Deane Jr., a partner with hedge fund Water Asset Management, as his firm works with cities such as Prescott Valley, Arizona, to commodify water and distribute it more equitably.
“Although superficially it would seem like there were potential issues that could be duplicated, I don’t think it really became – at least for us – that much of an issue,” added Alan Raymond. “We were basically profiling a person and a company who represented a new form of business. We weren’t really dealing with the plight of farmers.”
Water for Sale also documents early trading practices that saw once-prosperous communities like Crowley, Colorado, go dry after selling their water rights to the highest bidder.
Friedman says the biggest challenge on the production of Killing the Colorado was editing the three films – Farming the Desert, Dammed if You Do and Water for Sale – to feel as though they were part of the whole.
“We did that with Abrahm’s help and the interviews he did with various policy makers and experts who were able to provide the connective tissue that we used to edit the films,” Friedman explains. “I think we knew from the beginning what the order of the films would be. We just tried to set a somewhat uniform style with each of the filmmakers, but we also wanted each of the filmmakers to inject the films with their own voices.”
Killing the Colorado will debut under the ‘Discovery Impact’ banner, which is focused on developing at least six productions annually that highlight humankind’s impact on the environment.
“Wherever we can, [we're] trying to find stories that have some sort of solution that can be attached to it. It’s really making sure that people understand that our commitment is substantial to stories about the environment,” says Hoffman.
- Killing the Colorado premieres August 4 at 9 p.m. EST/PST on Discovery Channel.
- Check out an exclusive clip below.