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A Film Story: History of the Russian River Watershed


A Film Story: History of the Russian River Watershed

By Will Shonbrun

Books can do it once in a while. A song can do it too and even become an anthem for its time. Newspapers can do it if it breaks a big story that’s of national import. But movies do it not infrequently, the ‘it’ being to inspire and that’s what a film about the Russian River has done.

How does a film about water inspire and what does that mean?

The documentary, “The Russian River: All Rivers / The Value of an American Watershed,” gives us the history of the Russian River watershed, beginning with the native peoples who lived in proximity to it for millennia and built their cultural ways in accord with it, and on up to our present generation, tracing the historic and current use, or more accurately the misuse, of it.

But that’s not inspirational.

However it’s first necessary to understand the origins of the Russian, its relation to all the life forms intertwined with it, and most important for us, the humans dependent on it, though we’re hardly aware of it. And this the film does in encompassing scope and great detail.

Besides the film’s extraordinary cinematography and perfectly integrated sound track one is swept along in the narrative and the interspersed commentary that all combined tell the story of an endangered resource at a precarious tipping point. This is not a feel good nature flick. This is a cautionary tale and time is running out.

Viewing this, in a sense living the history of the river and seeing what has been done to it, unknowingly and also quite consciously, we become aware of the diverse and conflicting forces that have over time so greatly impacted it. Once dammed the Eel and the Russian provide the storage of water that then paves the way for expanding population and the development, which ensues from that. Housing, schools and commercial development follow. Agriculture has to have a piece of the action, a big piece, because without an ample water source there is no agriculture. In Sonoma County it’s grapes for wine, and the wine industry is one of the economic engines upon which the county and cities depend. And then there’s gravel mining, more valuable and more readily available than gold. All these forces have combined over time and their impact on the Russian has been devastating.

And what about the fish, the types of salmon and the steelhead trout and other species that once were of such great abundance it seemed to be inexhaustible? Some of these fish species have been so impacted by those diverse aforementioned forces they have bordered on extinction. It cannot be recounted here in this short review, but the film lays out in great detail and science-based data how the river has been affected and to a point that may well be irretrievable if we do not significantly change the ways we have misused and abused it.

Arguments are proffered by some in the film speaking for the wine industry and the interests of commerce that economic needs must come first and that is the reality that must govern. But when the full story of what this has done to the river and therefore to all who must depend on it, human, wildlife and plant life, it becomes plainly clear that all the economic arguments don’t hold water, to make a bad pun. It’s not that the diverse interests are not important or even necessary; it’s the fact that they must change how they have used this singular and unique resource, or in not all that much time it will no longer be sustainable.

One of the most important points made in the film is that water must be viewed as providing for the common good and that it must be “owned” in common by all dependent on it. It can no longer be thought of as a commodity or the private property of only some to be used for their interests. This seems to be finally entering into state and county legislative regulations, e.g., the Sustainable Groundwater management Act, arising from the extraordinary and long-lasting drought in our state. What we must affect is a change in consciousness regarding the element, which supports all life and without it we cannot survive.

As Maude Barlow, best-selling Canadian author, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and human rights activist who argues that water is a fundamental human right, says in the film:

“The lesson we learned as children, that we can’t run out of water, must be unlearned. We are a planet in crisis. People talk about it as climate change, as if it’s only around drying up from a warming climate, yes that’s part of the story, but the bigger part of the story is that we are abusing water.”

This must change. We really have no choice, and this film has the power to inspire us to work toward these changes. It is playing to sold-out theaters around the county and you can find out where it’s going to be screened at: