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Documentary Plumbs the Future of Western Water, Blends Optimism With Caution

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The documentary Beyond the Mirage, airing on various PBS stations takes an optimistic view of the future of western water--but cautions against complacency.

If you think California can secure its water future on its own, think again.

If there’s one key takeaway from the new documentary Beyond the Mirage, it’s that the western states are bound together by water, and they’ll all have to play nice together to secure future supplies for any of them.

For producer-director Cody Sheehy, that hit home when he found a new home of his own in Arizona.

“Looking around, I realized that it’s very tenuous,” says Sheehy, who grew up in the greener climes of Oregon. “Tucson almost feels like we’re a moon base out there in the desert.”

Arizona’s second-largest metro area is served by a 336-mile canal that hauls in water from the Colorado River, the future of which as a dependable water source might also be described as “tenuous,” after more than a decade of drought in that vital watershed.


“We don’t know if this is the fifteenth year of a 15-year drought, or the fifteenth year of a 50-year drought,” notes author and University of Arizona professor Robert Glennon.

Graphic shows the plunging level of Lake Mead, the nation's largest man-made reservoir and key to the Colorado system.
Graphic shows the plunging level of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir and key to the Colorado system. (Beyond the Mirage)

“I started the journey really as a lay person,” recalls Sheehy, “and as I learned more and more about the inter-connectedness between the states and between surface water and groundwater — the long-term projections for climate change — the situation in my mind just kept getting worse and worse.”

So shortly after Sheehy started as multimedia producer for the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he resolved to dive into the murk of western water policy. The project started small, but when Sheehy’s idea won the New Arizona Prize, the $100,000 boost from Arizona Community Foundation provided pockets deep enough for a feature-length documentary and some global perspectives. Some of those perspectives were eye-opening.

“Traveling around Israel and seeing a place that had issues every bit as complicated and every bit as challenging, recalls Sheehy, “they’ve overcome that and they really have a surplus of water now; they’ve turned their water issue into a global economic business opportunity, that they can export their solution.”

It’s become apparent that for the western U.S., solutions will only come if individual states give up long entrenched defensive positions and even give back some ground on long-held water rights. Otherwise, as former Nevada water-power broker Pat Mulroy asserts early in the film, “There won’t be any winners and losers. There will only be losers.”

While the narrative would benefit from more personal encounters with people already feeling the pinch of water scarcity, the work is information-packed and beautifully shot, with engaging graphics that “connect the dots” in the western water system.

“It is one huge plumbing system,” says Mulroy. “What happens in the [San Francisco] Bay Delta, matters in Cheyenne.”

Sheehy has parlayed his university projects into two spinoff companies, Rhumbline Media and Filmstacker, both based in Tucson. The latter’s mission is to further develop the technology on the Mirage website that allows viewers to mix and match clips to make their own mini-docs for distribution on social media. Sheehy says he believes this approach could help counter the “echo chamber” effect that the Internet tends to promote, wherein consumers of information are more and more immersed in the views of those who agree with them.

Mirage stands as both witness to the enormous challenges for water in the West, and testament to the resolve of those seeking a way forward. Sheehy’s main takeaway:

“It’s not something that we can’t solve.”

Beyond the Mirage airs twice on Friday and once Sunday night on KQED World, one of KQED’s digital TV channels. It’s airing on various public stations around the country in October and November, and producers say it will become available for streaming in April.

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