Don’t be tricked by all the rain and snow this winter: another drought is likely around the corner. As “Water & Power: A California Heist,” a National Geographic documentary, narrates the state is facing problems that go deeper than just filling its reservoirs. The battle for water is not just happening in some distant desert across the globe – it’s right here at home. In California’s drought-ridden Central Valley, exhausted farm-workers with poisoned tap water live alongside reservoirs of privately-owned water intended for farming.

Water & Power: A California Heist

Created by Academy Award-winning executive producer Alex Gibney and Emmy Award-winning director Marina Zenovich, Water & Power: A California Heist, examines the little-known events in California’s infamous history of water manipulation and the extensive implications for the thousands of residents without access to safe drinking water. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and aired for the first time on the National Geographic Channel in 171 countries on March 14, the documentary questions the future of the state farmlands, which provide nearly half the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The overall theme is greed! It’s astounding, it’s just astounding to me! Are we just going to rape the land, and screw the people, just so we can fill our pockets? It’s just so wrong!

Winning side

“Water & Power: A California Heist” starts by wondering how some California mega-farmers boost their profits during a period of historic drought and water rationing in the state. The answer lies in “the Monterey Amendments,” a deal struck in 1994 that included the privatization of a critical underground reservoir. As a result the Kern Water Bank was controlled by a single corporation and brought inexpensive water to farms run by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who made a fortune on water-intensive crops, like almonds, pistachios and pomegranates.

Later the Kern bank sold water back to the state at three or four times what they’d paid. The film flesh out many of this story’s details, visiting places like Lost Hills, the company town where Kern’s farm workers have lived in third-world conditions, paying for undrinkable water just yards from their employers’ lushly irrigated fields. Worse, as the drought has gone on, California’s natural underground water reserves  have gone down to dangerously low levels. Because they are often so deep, rains do not as easily fill them as they would a reservoir.

Losing side

“Water & Power” uncovers the inhuman exploits of California’s water barons, who profit off the state’s resources while common people encounter a debilitating water crisis. The film takes viewers into the lives and homes of local residents whose taps have run dry, to hear a young couple’s fears of starting a family for lack of water and children describing drinking water that tastes like blood. «We showed the history, which was very interesting to me, but the human face on it is the people who are suffering, and it’s not hard to find those people! We tried as much as we could to show how we got here, told by as many players who would talk to us as possible,» says Marina Zenovich.

The doc guides viewers through a complexity of corporate maneuvers, attempts to fight them, and the impact on local residents. Through interviews with journalists, local citizens, activists, state officials, environmental attorneys, farmers, investors, scientists and developers, it analyzes the important events that affect management of the state’s groundwater reserves.

There are too many people wanting a precious resource that people are trying to privatize. So this film is like a wake-up call for that. I didn’t know what I would find, but it was very intriguing getting there…We focus on California, but it’s happening everywhere. Water is being commodified. Look at the end of ‘The Big Short’ — the Christian Bale character is investing in water. That’s an interesting clue. In light of the current political situation and the climate deniers, it’s all connected.


The creators hope, that after watching this movie people will be aware of where their water comes from, develop an opinion about who should be controlling and using water, and recognize that this is a political decision, not an economic one.

There are a lot of active, current fights that people can join. And it’s the locals who need to be fighting those battles. They’re indeed the ones that have the knowledge and the ability and the energy to be dealing with these things. It’s time to take some action, and not just leave it to those that have a financial interest.

How do we know what’s going to happen? It’s a multi-layered problem. We live in a desert with too many people. We need to grow crops, but how much is too much? What are the right and wrong crops? When do you put in infrastructure? It’s cities vs. farmers, big vs. little farmers, environmentalists vs. farmers. The signal we’re getting from Washington is, there’s a super class who don’t have to follow the rules.

Water & Power: A California Heist

And that is exactly what is happening right now in California. Since the law allows for property owners to use the water below them, investors are buying up properties over aquifers. The film raises the possibility that a few major for-profit companies will control something locals consider a right. The good news is that there are steps being taken to address California’s ongoing water shortage. However, the fear is that this is happening too slowly. Still, if you want to be informed about this – watching “Water & Power” could be a great start.

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