In terms of water, the drought is getting all the headline space right now — but California’s water woes existed well before this current dry spell. The upcoming documentary The Longest Straw examines the precarious water system we have here in the Golden State, as well as how it affects people all over California — even though many people may take it for granted or may not even know about it in the first place!
We chatted with the film’s director Samantha Bode just after she completed a hike from Los Angeles to the Mono Basin along the path of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
When most people are looking for a route for a long backpacking trip, they usually start looking at a long distance trail. You hiked hundreds of miles along an aqueduct. Why?
The decision to hike the Los Angeles Aqueducts and Mono Extension really didn’t have much to do with hiking. Yes, I love hiking as much as the next Angeleno, but it had more to do with the fact that most Angelenos have no idea where their water comes from. Over 80% of the water we use and drink in Los Angeles is imported from at least 200 miles away, from the Colorado River, The San Joaquin Delta or the Owens Valley and Mono Basin. Most people, unaware of this fact, have a tendency to have an “outta sight, outta mind” mentality about their water sources. By hiking the aqueduct, I am guiding people on the journey of one of Los Angeles’ water sources, and along the engineering prowess of one of the first long distance water moving mechanisms of its kind. At the time of completion of the first Los Angeles Aqueduct, it was the world’s longest aqueduct at 233 miles, and the largest single water project in the world. Honestly, it is not the prettiest hike, but it’s brutally honest, and that’s what counts.
What was the biggest misconception people had about the Aqueducts? Did you find that people weren’t aware of how complex L.A.’s water system is?
Probably the biggest misconception is really how simple the Los Angeles Aqueducts and Mono Extension are. The Los Angeles Aqueducts and the Mono Extension are gravity driven into reservoirs along the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and through the Mojave Desert. No pumps, simple as pie.
What was the most interesting story you heard along the hike?
While taking a couple of zero days in Lone Pine, I wandered into the Darwin Museum. There, working the front desk, was the granddaughter of one of the first settlers of Lone Pine. She told me the story of how her grandfather was basically bullied by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to sell his land and water rights to the City of Los Angeles. From what I gather from various stories told throughout the valley, it was common practice for the people buying the land for the city to purchase all the land and water rights surrounding a certain piece of property. As a result, the water running through the remaining property was basically cut off, forcing the owner to sell because they could no longer make a profit from their land. But this person assured me that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power “paid a fair price” for their grandfather’s land. Almost every person I talked to in the valley, when asked how they felt about the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power referred to the relationship as a “love/hate relationship”. Most people love that the LADWP keeps the land of the Owens Valley relatively untouched, yet hate that the Department is taking the water from under their feet.
Another story that really struck a chord with me came from a guy working at the Jawbone Canyon store in the heart of the off road vehicle country in the Mojave Desert. He grew up there, became a pistachio farmer, and also works at the store for some extra cash. He said that every Christmas, his family would drive down to Los Angeles. As they drove through where the 5 and the 14 meet at the Cascades in Sylmar, what he referred to as the “rainbow waterfall”, he would always think to himself, “That water passes through my backyard, and I can’t have any of it.”
What was the best part of the hike?
The best day of the hike was the day that a Los Angeles Department and Water Power worker gave us chicken. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you where we were, or who this person was as it may compromise his position. I can tell you that it was extremely hot that day, and out of the kindness of his heart he went above and beyond to welcome my hiking buddy and I to a very important part of the Aqueduct. Recognizing the good in what we are doing, he provided us with a shady spot to rest, a plate full of chicken and potato salad, a giant can of ice cold green tea, and a couple of bottles of water. After talking with us for a few hours, he directed us to a sleeping spot which, in my opinion, was one of the best sleeping spots of the whole trip. After that day, I would periodically receive text messages from him, asking about my progress and making sure I was safe. It was really amazing to see one stranger having faith in another. Enough faith to be willing to share a meal and some time. Really beautiful.
And what about the hardest part?
For the first four weeks of the trip, I was hiking through the Mojave Desert. This meant caching water, as there were no natural water sources for miles. The producer of the film, Angela, would drive up every weekend with two five gallon bladders of water and a hiking buddy to accompany me for the week. Angela, hiking buddy, and I would venture out into the desert, off-roading in her Nissan Versa, dropping the water where we were scheduled to be every two days. At every water cache, I would say a little prayer that no thirsty animal or gun crazed target shooter would ruin our cache. Then Angela would leave to go back to Los Angeles and hiking buddy and I would venture out into the desert, loaded up with 8 liters of water on our backs. It was over 100 degrees most days. We would get up at 4 AM, and if there was enough water in our packs, we would make breakfast. No water meant jerky or dry granola. We would start hiking at 5 AM and stop at 11 AM, when we would build a shade shelter by stringing up a tarp to available plants. We would hunker down there, staring at lizards or each other, playing cards as the tarp whipped against our heads in the wind.
If you ever want to be on the verge of insanity, be in a shade shelter in the Mojave Desert during the height of summer. I cringe just thinking about it again. At 4 PM, we would hike for a few more hours until sunset, counting every sip of water we took. We would set up camp, sometimes a tent, sometimes cowboy if we had to be stealthy, and make dinner depending on the amount of water left. We would fall asleep, and wake up again the next morning, usually greeted by a scorpion that had sought out our body heat during the night. It was a rough time in the Mojave Desert.
What led you to want to tell the story of the Aqueduct now?
I believe that people have become too disconnected from the source of their water, which is the source of their livelihood. They turn on the tap, and fresh, clean, cool water comes out. They do not see the impacts of their water use, nor acknowledge the people that they share that water with. By showing the environment, people, and impacts of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, I hope that Angelenos will gain a better respect for the water, as well as a deeper kinship with the people that share that source.
There has been a lot of excitement (and maybe some trepidation) about the predicted El Niño bringing some wet weather this year. Will this offer any relief for the Owens Valley?
In the bigger scheme of things, I believe the El Nino is just a big distraction from the real issue. If this year’s El Nino is a wet one, it may provide some relief for the drought, but it will not address the bigger concern of California’s long-term water challenges, and will certainly not prepare us for future drought. Everyone in the state of California is currently in a state of panic. If the drought is declared “over”, due to a wet El Nino, people will go back to their old habits of wasting water. That can’t happen. We need to stay vigilant and recognize the climate in which we live, and how that climate is changing. We need to start think like the native Paiute and Shoshone of the Owens Valley, seven generations ahead.
What can people who live in cities like Los Angeles do to help with water use or learn about our place in the water system?
First and foremost, the people of Los Angeles need to realize that without water imported from places like the Owens Valley and Mono Basin, the city of Los Angeles as we know it today would not exist. Our city was able to grow and thrive on imported water, so we should learn about and respect the people, environments, and animals that share that water. Second, we ought to advocate for more local water sources to reduce our reliance on imported water sources. Third, we should be capturing and reusing everything that we can. Get over the “Eww” factor of waste water recycling, turn to more grey water systems, update building regulations to include grey water systems, transform our green spaces to suit the climate of Los Angeles, and for God’s sake, stop washing our cars so much! I come from the North East, and people there wash their cars once a month, if that. It is really unnecessary to wash a car once a week when you are not dealing with precipitation or dirt roads.
You’re a hiker, too — where else would you recommend people explore to see some of the water systems (natural and man-made) in Southern California?
I would say check out the Salton Sea. It is a great example of a natural water source gone rogue due to a manmade accident. It is currently disappearing, due to the drought, and is threatening to become another source of dust pollution in Southern California, on par with the dust pollution caused by the disappearance of Owens Lake. Also, there are some really cool areas around there, like Slab City, Salvation Mountain, and the amazing Imperial sand dunes.
The Angeles National Forest is also a really great place to check out. One of my favorite hikes of all time is to the Bridge to Nowhere along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Hiking through a cold river surrounded by whimsical yucca, lizards darting left and right, beautiful spring wildflowers shaded by oak woodlands. The Angeles National Forest is a great example of what Los Angeles would have looked like before the massive population boom brought upon by water importation. So beautiful.
What do you hope people take away from viewing ‘The Longest Straw’?
I hope that by viewing The Longest Straw, people will come away with a greater sense of unity with the people of the Owens Valley and Mono Basin, and therefore a greater sense of responsibility for that water as a shared resource. In comparison to the millions of people in Los Angeles, the people in the Owens Valley and Mono Basin are small in number and have a hard time voicing their concerns against a behemoth like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. If the people of Los Angeles, the Owens Valley and the Mono Basin all stand together with a unified voice, we have a better chance at ensuring the future sustainability of Owens Valley and Mono Basin water for all.
The Longest Straw – Without Water, There Is No Life from Longest Straw on Vimeo.
What kind of help did you have with this endeavor?
I was amazed and humbled by the amount of support people were willing to put forth for this project. Five people took the time from the comfort of their day to day lives in order to come and hike with me at various times. People from all over the world were sending me encouraging messages. Brunton provided us with a 26-watt solar panel and three batteries, which made it possible to keep everything we needed charged. SteriPen gave us two Classic 3 SteriPens to use on our hike. G-Raid gave us multiple discounts on hard drives. It’s amazing what people are willing to offer if you just ask. I hope to do all of those brands justice through this film. These products truly are amazing.
What’s next for the project?
We have finished the hike up the Los Angeles Aqueducts and Mono Extension, over 400 miles in 64 days. We are currently working with different water conscious groups in Los Angeles that are exploring more ways to acquire water locally. We are also entering into the post production phase, and hope to release the finished film by late 2016. After showing the finished product at various festivals, we would like to provide the film to various elementary schools in Los Angeles coupled with a curriculum that involves a series of field trips along the aqueducts to meet the people, see the landscapes, and feel the climate of Los Angeles’ water.
Visit The Longest Straw’s web site to find out more about the movie, sign up for their newsletter to get updates on the post-production process, and make donations to help with the film’s completion.