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10 Questions: Conrad Weaver, documentary filmmaker

The EMMY-winner is working on a new documentary about water scarcity that will focus to a large degree on California’s ongoing drought.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Conrad Weaver’s film The Great American Wheat Harvest” won a 2015 Mid-America Regional EMMY award for best documentary. Now he’s turning his film-making talents to water scarcity in America.

He started thinking about his next film when Midwestern farmers kept telling him the number one issue in their lives was drought. After that, it didn’t take long to conceive “Thirsty Land,” his next documentary, which is in production now and is expected to be completed late in 2016.

Weaver, whose Conjo Studios is based in Emmitsburg, Maryland, says the new film will focus to a large degree on California’s ongoing four-year drought. He took a break during a filming trip to California this week to answer a few questions from Water Deeply. He says working on the new film has opened his eyes to the nation’s water challenges, not just in California but in other locations as well. He hopes it will do the same for viewers.

Water Deeply: How did you first get interested in water issues?

Weaver: While visiting a B & B in Western Nebraska, I talked with an expert on the Oregon Trail. I asked him why did the early settlers follow the path they took? His response — “They followed the water” — stuck with me. And that really caused me to begin thinking about water, and the issues related to it.

Water Deeply: To what degree will the film focus on California? What aspects in particular?

Weaver: California really plays a huge role in the film, since it’s the hardest-hit region. We’ll have spent nearly 30 days of filming just in California. We’ve interviewed many farmers and growers of all sizes and types, as well as state and local officials, water and weather experts, irrigation districts and more.

We’re focusing primarily on agriculture, but also on the residual impact drought has on the communities surrounding agriculture. And then we’ve explored the relationship urban areas have with agriculture and agriculture with the environment. We’ve interviewed city officials in Sacramento as well as in L.A.

Water Deeply: Is there anything unique about drought in California that you’ve discovered in the course of your shooting so far? Any particular challenges that you haven’t seen elsewhere?

Weaver: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta really is at the heart of the California water system and problem. What happens with the Delta impacts the rest of the state. That’s pretty unusual. And the battle for control over the water that flows from the mountains has always been the central issue in California.

And what happens in California impacts other areas, as well. Like Lake Mead. When there’s less water coming down the CVP (Central Valley Project via the Delta), theres likely more water pulled out of Lake Mead. Water in the West is so interconnected. What a rancher does in Southern Wyoming on his sheep ranch, impacts a farmer in Orange County, CA.

Water Deeply: What will this film bring to the subject that hasn’t been covered before?

Weaver: There have been many stories about drought and water issues in the past, but our film will tell the story more from the agriculture side of things and how the drought is impacting real people in real ways. We’ll explore how agriculture and communities are working together to conserve water, and how these two must get along in order to be sustainable.

Water Deeply: How serious do you think are the nation’s water shortages, based on what you’ve learned so far?

Weaver: Water in the West is a serious issue, and will continue to be. Weather patterns have changed, and are bringing less snowfall to the mountains, and that’s crucial for semi-arid places like California that depend heavily on snowpack for the dry summer months. If the drought continues, and it probably will according to experts, then it’s going to get real. Will there be a mass migration out of the Southwest? As my Oregon Trail expert said, “People follow water.”

Water Deeply: Do you have any simple solutions in mind that have revealed themselves as a result of the project?

Weaver: There are many people working on amazing solutions. There’s innovative irrigation technology that reduces water use by 20 to 50 percent. There are cities that are recycling millions of gallons of water. There’s not just one solution, and there never will be. But the one thing that is absolutely necessary is that everyone must do their part: agriculture, urban and environment/recreation.

Some of California’s issues have been from a lack of planning to build new and updated water storage. Environmental groups have stopped these over the years, and that has to change. California has water storage designed for 12 million people back in the 60s. Today there’s nearly 40 million people and no additional significant water storage. That has to change. When everyone does their part, then maybe we’ll be on the way to a more sustainable future when it comes to water.

Water Deeply: Do you think the average person has woken up yet to the water problems we face? What makes you think so?

Weaver: If you live in California, or other drought-impacted place, you might think about it a bit more. But if you live back East, no. It’s not even on the radar, except as an occasional news headline.

Even people living in California, there’s awareness but, in my opinion, there’s an attitude that there’s always going to be water. And we have to change that. You won’t get it unless you live in areas like East Porterville and are carrying water into the house just to flush your toilet. Living there, you truly understand the severity of the situation.

But as a whole, most Americans don’t have a clue to these issues, and most don’t care.

Water Deeply: Have you changed any of your own habits as a result of what you’ve learned about water and drought?

Weaver: Yes, I’m much more aware of my own water use. From brushing my teeth, to rinsing dishes to taking showers, I’m much more conservation-minded than I was before I started on this project.

Water Deeply: What worries you the most about water?

Weaver: I worry that a lack of water in the West will become the cause of the next war, maybe civil war. I can see that happening. A farmer in western Kansas once told me, “There hasn’t been bloodshed YET (because of drought) … but there will be.” I’m also afraid it’s going to become the next “oil” with wealthy “water tycoons” who own the rights, controlling who gets it — for profit. That’s already happening in places.

Water Deeply: What do you hope people will learn from your film?

Weaver: I hope people will learn how precious water is to all of life, and that everyone must take a role in conserving water every day. I want people to think about it, every time they turn on the tap for whatever reason. Think about the water they use, waste, consume. Then work to reduce the amount of water they use, and get their neighbors to do the same.

Matt Weiser is managing editor of WaterDeeply.org. He can be reached at matt@newsdeeply.org or via Twitter at @matt_weiser.

Top image: Weaver, right, of Conjo Studios, interviews former California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura during a May 2015 trip to California to shoot video for his upcoming documentary, “Thirsty Land.” (Conrad Weaver)

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