Filmmaker Jessica Yu, inspired by the book "The Ripple Effect" by Alex Prud'homme, takes no prisoners in her assessment of American water usage. After an opening in parts of the world where crowds of people fight over a single 3-gallon jug of water and tanks patrol the streets to monitor water lines, she cuts to a montage of car washes, sprinkler systems, public fountains, and running showers that cuts to the bone with its cheeriness; rarely will a collection of such happy footage make the viewer feel so shameful. Before long, it's hard not to start mentally cataloging every memory of letting the sink run while washing dishes dishes or flushing the toilet to dispose of a spider corpse.
First on Yu's list of serious problem areas is Las Vegas, an area surrounded by barren desert. Somewhat ironically, the strip, with its water shows and rivers and fountains, is the least of the area's worries. With each expansion of population, more and more water gets sucked out of Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. When the water level in Lake Mead drops to 1050 ft., the dam will stop generating electricity, and 2011 elevation puts it at 1086 ft., with a yearly drop of 10 feet. Scripps researcher Tim Barnett describes theoretical discussions about what would happen if the lake would become completely barren, and says that by 2025, the probability of that actually happen would be roughly 50%. "We were shocked. If we don't do anything, Las Vegas is a dead city, full stop." To save Vegas, they've proposed a $3b, 250-mile pipeline up to a town called Baker, where another oasis awaits, but one has to wonder, is that a bandage or a solution? And what happens to the people of Baker? "If they take that, where do I go?" one resident asks.
Next, Yu paints California as on the brink of a massive shortage, one which can be previewed by looking at Australia, where a drought lit up some of the worst wildfires in the country's history, sent wildlife running into the cities, and wreaked havoc on the farmers that make their living in the Australian outback. Livestock died, plants refused to grow, and the farmers became hopelessly desperate: at the peak of Australia's drought, a caption tells the viewer, a farmer committed suicide every four days. Yu introduces us to the Horkings, a husband and wife who are struggling to get by when the cost of feeding their livestock outweighs the profit. Meanwhile, back in the Central Valley, farmers stubbornly refuse to re-evaluate water usage despite a panel of scientists and ecologists begging them to reconsider. Jay Famiglietti, of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, one of the documentary's most blunt participants, laughs nervously into the camera after the panel is over. "We're screwed!" he says, only half-joking.
The list of concerns is rounded out by an even more frightening prospect than having too little water: the prospect that we're poisoning the water we do have. Yu joins Erin Brockovich on a trip to Midland, TX, where the drinking water is tainted by excess amounts of hexavalent chromium, a chemical that causes skin rashes and cancer. Her journey is intercut with UC Berkeley's Tyrone Hayes, who examines the disturbing, transformative effect of herbicide Atrazine on amphibian life, and how that could mean birth defects and breast cancer in humans. Hayes determines that his frogs are affected when Atrazine makes up .1 parts per billion in a sample of water, a frighteningly low number thrown into even worse light when considering the EPA's chemical standard for Atrazine in drinking water is way up at .3 parts per billion, and water tested in a village in Ohio tests at 227 points of Atrazine per billion.
In the second half, Yu shifts into the discussion of solutions. Desalinization, recycled water and the social stigma of it (complete with Jack Black cameo), and the bottled water America loves so much (yeah, bad news on that front) are all discussed. Some will undoubtedly accuse the documentary of being bombastic and exaggerated, but Yu makes her points clearly and consistently, allowing the data to tell the story, and she stresses that it's not too late; the assembled panel of scientists and experts have hope (even Famiglietti). Last Call at the Oasis intends to startle the viewer, but only into action; it's a sharp reminder that something we routinely take for granted is also a resource, and one in desperate need of some forward thinking.
The Video and Audio
Four promo videos follow. "Hidden Water" Animated Video (2:59) is a great little animated promo briefly illustrating some of the things we take for granted that require(d) massive amounts of water, and a couple of tips on how to help conserve. "Jack Black Saves the World From Thirst" (3:43) is a slightly extended version of the footage from the film. I don't really know if this particular promo makes sense; if the issue with recycled water is just getting people to try it and realize there's nothing wrong with it, the comic exaggeration in the ad doesn't seem like...the best route? "Meet Mister Toilet" (3:19) is an little interview with Jack Sim, a former businessman using his wealth and skills to bring working toilets to third-world countries. The only problem with this featurette, which gets across some tough information and imagery in just a couple of minutes, is that it was initially prepped for the web, where it had a caption identifying Jack Sim. On DVD, without the caption, he's only referred to as "Mr. Toilet"! Finally, "Arid Lands" (5:00) investigates the Arid Lands Institute, teaching architects and students how to be more creative and resourceful when it comes to water use in future projects.
Trailers for dirt! The Movie, Fresh: New Thinking About What We're Eating, The End of the Line, and The Last Mountain are accessible from the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Last Call at the Oasis is also included. There is also a short menu page about Docurama Films.