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Executive Producer and actor Robert Redford talks about a new documentary "Watershed"

July 26, 2012 1:20 p.m.


Robert Redford, executive producer Watershed

Related Story: Robert Redford Says Problems With Colorado River Are Solveable


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In the mid-20th century, water diverted from the mighty Colorado river flowed into San Diego's reservoir for the first time. Back then, it seemed a water supply like that would last forever, and San Diego's water needs were solved. Now we know even the greatest natural resources have their breaking point. And a new documentary shows how the mighty Colorado river is being sapped dry. But unlike other sobering documentaries, this one also suggests it's not too late to change the fate of the Colorado or the communities that depend on it. The documentary is called Watershed, exploring a new waterer ethic for the new west. And it's a pleasure to introduce my guest, actor Robert Redford, executive prosecutor and narrator of watershed. Welcome to Midday Edition.

REDFORD: Thank you, Maureen, it's a pleasure will

CAVANAUGH: Now, you have been involved in environmental issues for many years. How severe an environmental problem is the condition of the Colorado river?

REDFORD: Well, I would say that it's severe. I guess it's a quantitative thing in the sense of, you know, what constitutes severe. But the fact that -- I think the fact that the Colorado river, which I think most everyone would agree is an American iconic figure no longer reaches its destination, which is of course tragic. It's tragic on many levels bump the fact that the Colorado river no longer gets to the sea of Cortez, which it always has, I think that's pretty significant. And I think people need to know that, and then they need to know why that is, and they need to know if there's anything that can be done, and if so, what could they be doing? And so I think what you said -- what I was listening to your intro, which I thought was really great, it really spells out what's happening on a global scale as well as a national one, which is that times are changing. We're in a period of change that's pretty severe right now. And whether you're a climate change denier or accept it, the fact is something is happening.


REDFORD: It's pretty clear that something is happening. And what's happening is having pretty devastating effects. We're having tornadoes where they didn't have before, hurricane where is they didn't exists, droughts that have happened before, but they're as severe now as they've ever been. And things are drying up. Seacoasts are rising, and water levels are rising. And water is disappearing. So I think that the Colorado river stands as kind of a global example of what's happening all over the world, which is there are more maces in the world now where the demand for water is greater than the supply, and it's pretty evident there at the Colorado. So I think drawing attention to that is pretty current. We have had before people coming to the table too late to say something. We had Al Gore's film, which I think --


REDFORD: There was some negative reaction to it, which is to be expected from people who don't want to see change occurring. But it also pointed out the fact that there are changes occurring very rapidly.

CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the things that's so provocative about this documentary from what I understand about it is that it really shows what you said about how the Colorado now doesn't flow like a mighty river to the sea but rather just sort of stops. Describe to us a little bit of what that looks like in the documentary.

REDFORD: Well, what it looks like in the documentary, which my son produced with a film maker from San Francisco, it shows how plentiful the Colorado river is when it's flowing freely, and in abundance, and what happens when it runs dry short of its destination. What happens is all the cultures that have existed on the Colorado river in the southern portion, which includes the San Diego area.


REDFORD: And certainly the Mexico area. Those cultures that have lived on that river no longer can live there. Their crops are dried up. They have no sustenance. They have to move out and away or they starve to death. It's kind of tragic when the solution is fairly easy. I think when you stop and think about the little amount of money, something like $15 million, when you think of the grand scale of things, that's not a lot, that's all it would take to restore the river to its base. Then I think bringing it to people's attention is one way to help solve the problem. I honestly believe in my heart that there are a number of Americans that believe in American iconic figures, and the Colorado certainly is one of them. And you don't want to see that disappear. So I think making people aware of the issue, and the consequences where people don't have water to drink, they don't have to water to irrigate crops with and have sustainable living would be eye pretty major thing. And I'd like to see us play some kind of a role in drawing people's attention to this.

CAVANAUGH: You use the word sustainable, and I think that really comes to the fore. When you think about it, the water that was originally diverted from the Colorado river still is to Southern California, in many ways it made Southern California that we know possible to even exist.

REDFORD: Well, particularly Los Angeles where I was born and raised. I mean, there's a wonderful segment in the piece where the guy has a bike shop in LA, talks about how important it is to him. And he's a native. But I remember as a kid growing up in Los Angeles, and how we were so water-dependent. And we take water for granted. That's the problem. There's so much waste involved. And now for people to have to start looking at something they never thought ever they would, as you said earlier in your program, some things we thought would last forever. Well, we're finding out that nothing really does last forever. And so water being one them would be a real tragedy because it's one of our life forces. So I think that the area that you're in, San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Colorado river does serve seven states when you get right down to it. Boy, that's a lot of Americana that depends on one source, one resource!

CAVANAUGH: You're absolutely right. The way that you tell the story in the documentary is that we meet a lot of people in this documentary. And the story of the Colorado is told through the eyes of these people. You mentioned one, a guy in LA who runs a bike store. But we meet a whole bunch of people, a Native American woman who talks about what the Colorado river means to her culture. Who else are some of the people that we neat in Watershed?

REDFORD: Well, you meet a river raft guide. You meet an outward-bound counselor that takes young people out on the river and explains the value of natural resources that are unfortunately shrink think because of various reasons. I think one of the things that I think has to be looked at is -- where manifest destiny was such a big deal for America 100 years or so ago, it's now a about bit of a negative in that we cannot just take everything we can get our hands on and eat it up and use it for or own personal interests. We have to think about the value of resources for cultures larger than our smaller ones, and also generations to come. And if we're going to be selfish with what we've got now and misuse a valuable resource like water, then we're depriving our children's children and their children of a life. And so I think we have to look at it from that standpoint of sustainability. We can't take water supplies for granted. We have to look at how water is used, particularly in the Colorado river, and we have to look and see, okay, you've got agricultural, you've got power plants which use a huge amount of water. And if you look at -- I'm speaking now I think as an environmentalist, I'll admit that, but when you stop and think about how water is being used as the film points out for oil extraction, for fracking that's going to be happening in the country, because everyone thinks that natural gas is the new boon, but what is going to be the consequence to water? We better start thinking about how water is used in this country. And the Colorado river sets a wonderful benchmark for us to look at.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with actor Robert redFord, executive prosecutor and narrator about the new documentary about the Colorado river called Watershed. As long as the water comes out of the tap, there's going to be a lot of people who don't believe that there's a serious crisis here. How do you go about convincing people that changes need to be made?

REDFORD: Well, I think you can show what happens when water is either running dry or it is misused like I mentioned fracking. There was a film called -- I've forgotten the name of it now. It was made about the cost of fracking, what it does to water.

CAVANAUGH: I think you're referring to Gasland?

REDFORD: Gasland, yeah, thank you. A guy turns on his tap and brown comes out. And another guy turns on his tap and it catches fire, and another guy turns on his tap, and nothing happens. That's happening in a lot of places. We just don't know about it. Water is something we take for granted like daylight and night and day, and things like that. And we don't ever think of something like water as running dry. But the fact is, unless we apply proper use to it that considers all people, then we're going to dry up as a culture. I spent a lot of time on the Colorado river, going to school in Colorado and then being in Utah and so forth. And I've been on that river many times in many different spots. And it's pretty incredible. It's quite an incredible source of energy and also beauty. And so I think drawing attention to that, saying look, this is threatened. Would you like to help keep it in existence, would not be a bad thing F. We can play some role in doing that, I would be certainly happy. And I think the film tries to do that by bringing people's awareness to the fore.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested in the full title of Watershed. It's exploring a new water ethic for the new west. What do you envision as the new west?

REDFORD: Well, the new west has to be aware that the west is shrinking. And the west is no longer what we made famous in films and so forth. It was wideopen spaces where manifest destiny could be realized. That's just not possible anymore. There's no frontier left. Well, the frontiers are now all gone. And so therefore what are we going to do with what we've got, which are now reversing? They're no longer out there with great space. The spaces are shrinking because of the use of those spaces. So I think what I would hope that the film does is that it points out what happens when demand exceeds supply, and what is that demand, and what is the supply, and how can we rearrange that? And I think that the -- if we can point out that this is a threat to the security of the whole American west because it hits seven states, and when we can see the drought conditions that are existing right now throughout the whole west and midwest, and we can see the role that water would play, and if we start to lose that, where are we going to be? It becomes dark. But America has never been really good accepting dire. You have to balance it out with solutions. Because I think we're a can-do country and people. We want to know what we can do. We don't want to just be told it's all bad and sorry and goodnight.


REDFORD: It's, like, it's not good, folks, and it's shrinking to a dangerous point. But you can do something, and here's what you can do. So I like to think the film tells you what exactly you can do, by making a small donation to the Colorado river delta water trust. You can help buy back water rights for farmers and reconnect the river to the sea at not much cost. So you want to make a donation via the website, which is And I think it requires action from not just every person but city and state and industry. They all have to come together on this. We're all at risk. It's not one freed up from the other. We're all at risk. I'd like to think that comes through in the film.

CAVANAUGH: Some people get upset when movie stars have ideas about the world. Do you still get criticized for being a social activist?

REDFORD: Well, I suspect I do. I don't blame people for that. I've been pretty sensitive to that my whole life. I thought early on in the '70s when I started speaking about the environment, I got hammered pretty good when I would get up to speak. I would be told, well, what does he know? He's an actor. Until Regan got elected, then that shifted the gears.


REDFORD: But yeah, I am sympathetic to that idea. If I was somebody, a working class person working hard, I don't get a chance to get a microphone. And I have strong feelings and opinions. Then I see some person that I don't think has earned that right suddenly vaulted on top of a stage telling me how to live my life, I would resent it. And I can understand that. So if you're an actor, it doesn't mean you've given up citizenship. But it does mean you have to be very careful about what you say and what your position is, and what you've earned, and what right you've earned to say it. And I'm pretty sensitive to that. I can understand why people would recept an actor speaking out. But an actor, I think along with anybody, has to earn that right. You're not entitled to just parachute into the situation, in other words. I think you have to work your way up to it.

CAVANAUGH: My last question. You just finished saying what Watershed hopes that it can inspire people to do, to give some money to restore the Colorado river. But you speak with a lot of serious environmentalists these days, and people who are involved in climate change, and you get the impression that it's too late. We've already done too much damage. Things are significantly changing. And I wonder what we do with that kind of an the tude. Do you think it's too late?

REDFORD: No, I don't. I don't think it's too late. And I'm pessimistically optimistic, I guess that would be the way to put it. I don't know what life would be like going through it as a cynic. I don't know what it would be like going through it as a pessimist. It feels like no way to live, and you want to be realistic about your optimism. But I believe there's always hope. And as long as there's hope that you should do what you can do keep hope alive. And I think that so many things have shrunk, our natural resources, our livelihoods have shrunk, our much to deal with things financially have shrunk. But there's still hope. And I think people coming together is probably the either, and grassroots is probably the best way to go. We certainly can't count on government or Congress these days. They let the country down big-time. But I think people coming together, there's nothing that's like it. It's wonderful. And I think if people can come together to this particular issue to say, hey, I care about this, whether I'm directly affected or not, I care about the image of that in my country, and I care about people that are friends of mine or relatives that live in that area, I want to help. I believe those people exist and that gives me hope.

CAVANAUGH: The southwest premiere of the documentary, Watershed, exploring a new water ethic for a new west, will be presented at the water conservation garden in El Cajon this Saturday evening at 8:15. Thank you so much, it's been a thrill.

REDFORD: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Maureen.

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