How water’s been handled and mishandled in the American West since the turn of the century and how this country helped manage and mishandle water in several crucial spots around the world prove a challenging subject, and exec producers Jonathan Taplin and Sandra Itkoff have sure picked out the qualified people not only to tell the selected facts but to explain them. Vintage film clips of churning water, old newspaper headlines, remarkable archival film and contemporary footage fill in the often astonishing story narrated by Alfre Woodard.
Jon Else’s “Mulholland’s Dream,” wasting no time on frills, goes straight to the history of how uneducated Irish immigrant William Mulholland rose to gigantic heights as L.A. water czar at the dawn of the century, and how, during his latter years, despite his successes and innovations, he endured what’s tantamount to Greek tragedy.
L.A. had been showing a thirst for water — the L.A. River was a drop in the bucket — and onetime ditchdigger Mulholland and ex-Mayor Fred Eaton set off across the Mojave Desert to verdant Owens Valley, 230 miles to the north, to buy on the q.t. much-needed water from the Owens River for L.A. Backed by, among others, the publishers of the L.A. Times, developers and California boosters, non-engineer Mulholland created an awesome aqueduct across the desert. With a mammoth pipeline, he sucked up 95% of the precious water from Owens Valley for semi-arid L.A.
When Owens Valley went dry, local ranchers tried dynamiting the aqueduct, but Mulholland responded with armed force. He created the huge San Francisquito Canyon Dam 45 miles north of L.A. to store a year’s supply of Owens Valley water; he personally inspected and OK’d the dam on that very day in 1928 it gave way.
Farms, ranches, roads, towns — everything — were washed out, and more people died because of the moving wall of water than died in the San Francisco earthquake. Mulholland, chief of the water department, accepted full blame and the shame.
Fictionalized in Robert Towne’s “Chinatown,” the story’s a gem of complexities and motivations. Mulholland’s granddaughter Catherine Mulholland vividly recalls those faraway days and what the dam’s collapse emotionally cost her grandfather. The docu brings up San Fernando Valley’s secret land deals among bigwigs, the chicanery and the politics of what was happening. With Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” as a guide (Reisner appears often and informatively), Else unfolds how L.A., the big dipper, and its surrounding territories have fared since Mulholland’s triumphs and calamity.
Else’s account in “An American Nile” of Colorado River politics spotlights opportunism at its richest as Arizona, too, sought water.
Explorer John Wesley Powell first saw and marveled at the desert area in 1869. Started in 1931 during the Herbert Hoover administration, Boulder Dam was finished in 1935 during FDR’s reign. Superb archival shots indicate how chillingly dangerous the huge task was. The dam itself made the Colorado the greatest single source of electricity in the world and indicated that the drylands could be conquered.
Shifting westward, Else’s “The Mercy of Nature” picks up on California’s dry Central Valley, and the flowering of San Joaquin Valley through politics, know-how and ambitions. The federal government under Roosevelt followed up Hoover Dam by subsidizing the Central Valley Project, largest water works in history. (Lots of such superlatives roll out in the four-hour program.) Supposedly smaller farmers would benefit from reclamation project, but large corporations were benefiting from the boom that came with the arrival of water, which was channeled in by various means.
Gov. Pat Brown, stressing the importance of water, started the State Water Project, which was similar to the federal endeavors. SWP built the tallest dam in the nation, Oroville Dam, in Northern California.
The graft and undercutting were continuing until President Carter tried stopping cost overruns, environmental threats, poverty among the farmers. His actions upset the privileged elite, but former reclamations commissioner Daniel Beard flatly states, “Clearly President Carter was right. These projects, when you looked at them, were completely unjustified.”
And one farmer says plaintively about the water, “But it belongs to us, don’t it? The big canal? The taxpayers? Did I say something wrong?”
The expense and extravagant waste of good land comes to the fore in “Last Oasis,” in which author Sandra Postel joins clear-voiced Alfre Woodard as narrator. This final hour covers the ways wasted water affects lives around the world — South America, India, China, the Mideast as well as, once again, Colorado and California.
Docu points out that over a billion people in the world have no access to basic drinking water or sanitation needs. The overseas projects are overwhelming, particularly the proposed Three Gorges Dam in China.
Docu points out that rivers in Indonesia, the Middle East, Malaysia and Chile are being turned into reservoirs. In Mexico City, the wealthy have water piped in while the poor are stuck with high water wagon bills.
Program, braced by a fine, understated score by Martin Bresnick, was shot on 16mm film, and the first hour was transferred to HDTV. In either case, the old footage and the current film look terrif. Editing throughout is superior, with vintage clips — particularly rescue work at that San Francisquito disaster — expertly sandwiched into the production.
The excellent report, which points out the ways to obtain water and save living beings, moves at a fast clip. If the third hour suffers from an overload of info, it still offers important research into the fight to preserve water.
As does the entire production.