Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Desert Water: The Making of Two Short Films

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by Hal Crimmel

In 2015, with documentary filmmaker Issac Goeckeritz, a Weber State graduate, I released two short films about water in the state of Utah. The films were based on chapters from my 2014 book Desert Water: The Future of Utah’s Water Resources.

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Book cover, “Desert Water: The Future of Utah’s Water Resources” (Utah: The University of Utah Press, 2014).

I began thinking about the book idea some years ago, when it seemed as if there was some story every week in the local press about a new—and in my view bad—idea about how to use water in Utah, one of the driest states in the American West. These ideas included plans to pump groundwater out of the desert and pipe it to Las Vegas, or build a billion-dollar pipeline to the small city of St. George, Utah, or a nuclear power plant on the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The plant would use huge amounts of water and lie upstream from the drinking water supplies of 25 million people.

These issues, and others, concerned me enough that I wrote a chapter for the book and solicited work from writers, scientists, public policy advocates, and others to include in the collection. The book addressed broad issues facing the state, including climate change, a population expected to double in 40 years, and a high per capita consumption of water.

In 2014 a request for proposal (RFP) came out from iUTAH, a National Science Foundation-supported grant, asking for proposals for projects that would communicate Utah’s water issues to the public. Given Americans’ time-pressed culture, and ever more mobile-enabled, video-driven means of communication, I thought that a film could impart the water issues effectively to the general public, especially schoolchildren. After conversations with filmmaker Issac Goeckeritz, I wrote the grant. We were awarded a sum of money, but not enough to make a 60-minute documentary. After further conversation we decided that two short (eight-minute) films would be an even better way to communicate water issues—they would be easily accessible online and would have a quick impact in comparison to a longer movie.

We settled on two topics, and titled the films Desert Water: Climate Change and the Great Salt Lake, and Desert Water: A New Water Ethic, both based on chapters in the book. With Dan Bedford and Dan McCool, respectively, I drafted scripts for the two films. Issac weighed in with edits and revisions, and I then arranged interviews with the individuals in the films. We then went out on location and filmed the interviews at points around the Great Salt Lake, on a streambank and at other places in Northern Utah. In the interviews, our goal was to have the individuals talk about key points we wanted to make in the context of the places under discussion. When we filmed one segment about the Great Salt Lake and its economic importance, for instance, we went with an employee of Compass Minerals and shot footage of the evaporation ponds and mineral processing facilities. Issac also went around Northern Utah over several months and shot B-roll—background roll—which are the shots of the mountains, freeways, rivers, and cities visible in the films.

As with any creative project, much revision and editing is required. Issac and I went back and forth on tightening the script, improving the flow, deciding what parts of which interview would be included and so forth. The collaboration was a highlight of the process, as the synergy between text and visuals carried over into our idea-generating in terms of locations, images, order of shots and so on. Filmmaking is a tremendous amount of work due to all the on-location work, the scripting, revising, and production aspects, such as color enhancement, the soundtrack, and narration.

The two topics were chosen for a variety of reasons. The Great Salt Lake film was chosen in part because of the stunning visuals the lake presents, and because it is such a Utah icon, yet one threatened by climate change and more dams on its major tributary, the Bear River. These dams would reduce inflow into the lake; lakes don’t do well without water. We also chose to make a film version of the chapter on a new water ethic, because this is a conceptual topic that needs to be communicated to the public for them to be willing to embrace water policies that are different from those historically embraced in Utah and throughout the American West. A new water ethic is also something that all citizens can potentially embrace and adopt for their own water use practices inside and outside their homes.

Finally, we tried to strike a neutral tone in the films so as not to alienate viewers; in Utah, a fairly politically conservative state, more measured communication typically goes further than inflammatory rhetoric. In this regard, Issac and I sought to present the issues fairly and responsibly to set the stage for developing practical solutions.

The films are short enough to quickly and clearly communicate their message but long enough to offer some detailed explanation of the issues at stake and possible solutions. I hope (and we hope) that you find the films informative and well crafted!

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