In collaboration with OnEarth Magazine and Barry Nelson, a Senior Water Policy Analyst at NROC
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 fifty years old, but as you’ll see, his seventy-six-year-old dad still calls him a “good kid.”)
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 thirty-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.
I 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