REVIEW: Basic Message of Water-Shortage Doc Last Call at the Oasis? We're Screwed

Movieline Score: 7
Last Call at the Oasis

If you're in the mood for something new to keep you up at night worrying (and who isn't?), Jessica Yu's new documentary Last Call at the Oasis will neatly do the trick of refreshing your sense of impending doom. Aside from times of drought, water never seemed as urgent a problem as climate change, peak oil, deforestation and the other issues on our path to world destruction. But Last Call at the Oasis makes a convincing case that we're on the verge of both Waterworld and large scale Erin Brockovich-style scenarios.

The real Brockovich appears on-screen in Last Call at the Oasis, along with experts and activists like Peter Gleick, Jay Famiglietti, Robert Glennon and Tyrone Hayes, who guide the doc through its various sources of alarm. As a topic, water issues are sprawling and more than one feature can really handle — the film bounces between the imminent failure of the Hoover Dam due to the steadily dropping level in Lake Mead to the possibility of draining an area in North Nevada to continue providing water in Las Vegas. California's Central Valley is the site of a debate between farmers furious their water has been cut off and environmentalists and fisherman trying to protect the watery ecosystems being devastated by the process. Satellites show groundwater disappearing; hormones and steroids from medication aren't being processed out of what we all then drink; chemicals from factories and pesticides get into the water supply and poison people and animals.

Basically, as one scientist puts it, "We're screwed." Last Call at the Oasis has more than the usual share of gloom, though it's too steady with the facts to ever come across as alarmist — and some of its imagery is downright haunting. Hayes, a professor at UC Berkeley, was first hired to research the impact of the pesticide Atrazine on amphibian populations, and took his findings public when the company wanted him to hide his discovery that even at levels deemed safe for human consumption the chemicals caused male frogs to develop female characteristics. Then there's the green water coming out of the taps of homes in Midland, Texas, indicative of the carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. Manure pools from concentrated animal feeding operations in Michigan bleed chemicals into the ground; dead fish clot watersides. Not even bottled water is safe.

Last Call at the Oasis is a Participant Production, and its determined US-centricity seems both calculated and closed-off. The film wanders abroad only to explore situations as they relate to the States. There's the cautionary tale of Australia, where a decade of drought has shut down dairy farms, their owners weeping and sometimes, as a troubling stat notes, committing suicide. Singapore shows up because it has successfully trained its population to accept recycled water. A visit to the Middle East shows that Yardenit, the Jordan River baptism site, is downstream from heavy pollution, and that some families go for months without water. It's an irritating way to look at a global problem, especially since, as the film notes in the beginning, America has "the biggest water footprint in the world." But there's also something canny (if cynical) about it — problems elsewhere are other people's problems, and what better way to motivate a population than by showing it things that have only to do with them?

Yu is a step above the average problem-doc director — her earlier nonfiction films In the Realms of the Unreal and Protagonist showcased unusual visual ambition, touches of which show up in this more traditionally structured work. Lakes drain before our eyes, leaving a dock jutting out into the air; dreamy vintage footage shows children wriggling along underwater in a pool. The opening credits appear over shimmering, slow motion shots of splashes of liquid, and a sense of the power of imagery can also be found in the more standard footage: For example, a worker at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn opens up a hatch to show the condoms bubbling up to the surface of the to-be-treated water.

Having presented so much widespread impending disaster, Last Call at the Oasis can't quite make its final argument that "the glass is still half full" — there doesn't seem to be any turning this ship around, only slowing it a little. The film offers some hope in the form of reclaimed water, the most economically and environmentally sound means of slowing our water consumption. It's sewage water that's been treated and purified to the point of being potable, though as a psychologist notes, there's a serious public reluctance to be overcome before anyone will actually want to quaff it — the film even brings in marketing teams and Jack Black to test out what kind of marketing it would take to make it work. Like many of the angles in the film, it's a question of short-term gains versus long-term survival — arguments about jobs, keeping the Las Vegas Strip in working fountains or squeamishness about where your drink came from start to seem trivial when you consider not having enough safe water to live.

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  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    In the '30s, for awhile, it was complete paralysis -- no good news anywhere. Then all of a sudden you had enfranchised leaders popping up everywhere, and with them awesome-sized public work projects for united polities -- class differences dissolved, as everyone became "folk." It seems pretty obvious that we're headed for the same, but much of the grand sacrifices and work efforts will this time be toward not just bridges and roads, but needed environmental adapations -- epic; everywhere. I've read and seen so much of limits to growth, and am a communal socialist / liberal who thinks the best living, though not necessarily shortchanged by grand vistas and hotels and a car in not one lot but two, is so mostly determined by the nature of your company that this all still remains extra, but am truly not convinced by any of their projections, figuring them at best to mis-understand what people put together when driven are capable of, and at worst as falling for the pleasure of seeing one's own increasingly tensed and poisoned mind as really just a sane reflection of one's abysmal living environment -- i.e., for the crazy ostensibly being "out there," not, extra-scarily, just "in here."

  • Jake says:

    All these docs tend to overlook one thing (beyond typically just being propaganda) and that is human ingenuity. The same reason Malthus is always proven wrong again and again.

    So these docs have value in raising awareness, but they are almost never a good depiction of reality, nor a true harbinger of what is to come.

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      And, if you don't mind me adding, human beings always end up springing out of periods where they're depressed and sacrificial, suddenly discovering resources they would have thought impossible to ever achieve again -- imagine how few Depression folk thought there might be ahead the hippie sixties and pleasure-culture seventies; they thought finally just have a slight better chance of not being subject to sudden starvation was a miracle.

  • Dr Edo McGowan says:

    While reclaimed sewer water may eventually become a norm, the standards that now control its production are so antiquated as to be dangerous. Sewer plants are one of the main sources of antibiotic resistant pathogens, not merely passing them through the plant but actually generating them. The interested reader may wish to look at the following: These enter the water resources and colleagues are finding antibiotic resistant genes in drinking water. The US EPA and the CDC are well aware of this yet seem to be moribund by industry pressures.. TheWastewater Research Division, Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, Ohio, which documented that sewer plants generated antibiotic resistant microbes is an example of something that has been known for three decades and yet nothing has been done about it. The US EPA document on sewer plant generation of antibiotic resistant pathogens in the water supply will be found at the following:

    We are running out of viable antibiotics. In 2006 at the Environmental Law Conference in Yosemite, various papers were delivered. Session # 27 was to contain some interesting insight into this area of non-action by regulators. The topic was pharmaceuticals in groundwater. Of particular interest was the analysis of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) by one of the US EPA drinking water toxicologists. His delivered paper ended with the following: “Bottom line on almost all of the “emerging” contaminants that have attracted attention: It will be a long time, if ever, before they are regulated under the SDWA.” With that in mind, when might the US EPA begin to address the issues of antibiotic resistance or resistant genes found in the nation's wastewater, hence water supply? Can the industry move ahead to supply the citizens with "safe" drinking water absent this or will it deal with resistance by just ignoring it?

    Dr Edo McGowan, Medical Geo-hydrology

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