Filmmaker Jim Havey on His Colorado Water Documentary

Jim Havey's soon-to-be-finished feature documentary, The Great Divide, aims to tell the tangled story of water in Colorado -- a subject as vast as the state and the eight states that Colorado supplies water to. He's looking at the acequias (ditch irrigation systems) in the San Luis Valley, the export of water to Arizona, California and beyond, and the legal complexities of who owns water and why. The film will include interviews with activists and water companies alike. And to make it, Havey has raised over $300,000 and is planning to raise another $20,000 from a Kickstarter campaign that launched on September 8.

Westword caught up with Havey to talk more about the movie and the campaign. See also: Colorado Water History to Get Its Closeup in The Great Divide

Westword: Where are you are in production with The Great Divide?

Jim Havey: This is a project that we've been working on for a year and a half now, in terms of being acclimated to the whole water picture in Colorado and going to water events and meeting the people and raising money and getting confidence built that this is something that's definitely needed and that people want to get involved in. The public education piece is a ninety-minute documentary on the story of water in Colorado. We have gotten a script together.

Let me tell you a couple things structure-wise. To get the confidence of the water community in Colorado, we agreed to put together an advisory council made of key water stakeholders around the state to help advise us on the script to make sure it really is a public education piece and not an activist piece. It's very balanced in its approach and tells the story, past, present and future, of water in Colorado.

So we've got that structure in place. We've got the first draft of a script that the council is viewing now. We've started doing production, which is basically filming all four corners of the state and everywhere in the middle, basically centered around the main river basins in the state: the Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, the Gunnison, the Yampa, the Colorado and nine rivers in the southwest basin down near Durango, Pagosa Springs and so on. It's a big area to cover.

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What we're looking at is the distinctive qualities that really drive the story of water in each of these different river basins. So we have been going around Colorado interviewing people. We've interviewed about 35 different water experts in Colorado: climatologists, agriculture people, water utilities and water conservancy districts. We're trying to cover all the bases, and we're basically doing gorgeous filming of the most beautiful state in the country and telling the story of water through pictures and words.

Clearly, Colorado's water politics are complicated and this subject is vast. I'm curious how you're turning that into a story. Talk about a few of the stories that are coming out.

Every area has a story and has interesting things. There is the groundwater story on the South Platte, where they've had to shut off farmers' wells. Some were put out of business. It's a big controversy with lots of passion around that story.

There is the story of the acequias, the original water rights in Colorado down in the San Luis Valley and Hispanic farmers and a lot of other ethnic groups down there, too. It basically comes out of the Hispanic community and the way they share water down there and the way they still farm on these plots of land that they have for the last couple hundred years. It's the story of a desert environment being turned into all of these little areas and oases, if you will, that have made this a livable land and what is behind all of that.

Even the engineering stories behind this stuff. It takes a technological miracle to get water delivered to all these different users around the state of Colorado: transmountain, transbasin, through all kinds of purification processes and water quality. It is a huge story. There are a lot of issues, and what we're trying to do is tell it in a way that people can appreciate the complexity of it, the importance of it, the critical timing that we're in right now in our history in Colorado with climate change, over-appropriated river systems and with what's coming down in the future, which is basically a lot of compromise.

We're well past the stage where anybody can get anything in the water world without giving up something else. So there are all these different sides to this story, and what we've got to try to do, as filmmakers, is try to make it entertaining and interesting and take people on a journey through this that will, in the end, show them what role they might have in this big picture.

We've all got a role in conservation. It's really about people being able to appreciate where we've been, where we are now and what we've got coming up in the future so that we've got a more informed electorate and a more informed public in dealing with water issues.

Who do you see as the audience?

First and foremost, it's a Colorado audience and secondarily, it's a Western story. I think it effects the whole West. Our water that comes out of our mountains is distributed to eighteen states from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River, so it's a vast area of the country; I think there is some interest around there. We've been talking with the public television stations. We've got interest in Arizona and Wyoming and Colorado and we're going to go to the other states in the Colorado River basin and the Arkansas basin and the South Platte basin and try to get this distributed to those public TV stations.

It's also going to tour the state of Colorado to hopefully a lot of historic movie theaters. They'll combine the program with a panel discussion with water experts in each area who will discuss their issues while showing the film. Is it a national story? Yeah, I think it's a national story, too. People in the East don't understand at all what's going on out here in the desert West. I think at some point they'll find it a very interesting, compelling story, too.

Read on for more from Jim Havey.

Governor Hickenlooper has made declarations about population growth and water shortages Colorado faces in the future. Can you speak to that? Where are we as a state? Well, the projections are that in the next 35 years -- 2050 is the big date that everybody talks about -- by 2050 the state population is expected to double from five million to ten million people. Right now, our water is over-appropriated. Right now, there is a gap between supply and demand, and that gap is only going to widen as we go forward.

In the last hundred years, we've been living in a golden age of water. A hundred years ago, roughly, there were issues of water quality. People were getting sick on water. In early Denver, there was typhoid and all kinds of diseases that were water-borne diseases. Now we've got water that is cheap, that is abundant and that is safe. Those three qualities are really at risk in the coming water picture in Colorado and the West. There is not going to be abundance anymore. It's going to have to cost more. It can certainly still be safe. But the lack of water is going to drive the price up and there are going to have to be some sacrifices made.

Will that mean that people won't be able to grow grass lawns? Half of the personal use of water in the cities goes to water lawns. It's a big bone of contention with people on the Western Slope who don't want any more of their water coming over to the eastern side to water people's grass. There are places like Las Vegas, where they buy people's lawns back and they pay them money to re-landscape their yards with xeriscape. They take out the grass.

There have been a number of different things that have been done in water-crisis places. There are a lot of things that are being looked at for Colorado.

Talk about the aesthetics of the piece. The trailer is gorgeous.

Filmmaking is an art. That's very much the way that lots of filmmakers, including us, look at it. So we definitely want to have really stunning visuals. Part of this thing is that it's going to have to be entertaining. If you go to a movie and you're not moved somehow emotionally and you're not entertained, you feel like you saw a lousy movie. This is not just a dry resuscitation of information and facts. We've got to make this thing really interesting and weave a story that takes people on a journey that's aesthetically beautiful and is something that's insightful and really just inspirational. That's what people need to see.

There are going to be challenges that we're all going to have to face, but there are definitely upsides to that too. We live in one of the most beautiful areas in the country. If you have to do a little more conservation of the water, there's going to be some tradeoffs, but I think we can find inspirational sides of this story as well.

I've asked all these people: Is there any kind of apocalyptic scenario coming up here? If you look at the stats and look at the past and things like the ancient Puebloans and some of the bad droughts we've had in Colorado and in the West, you think, yeah, with climate change and everything else, isn't somebody talking about an apocalyptic scenario? I can't get anybody to say that's how they see it.


They do say there are going to be lots of challenges, but there have been plenty of other challenges that man has faced, and I think there are ways to conserve water and lots of different things to be looked at. Who knows what kinds of new technologies will help in this regard?

With you having a more distanced perspective, do you see it as apocalyptic at all?

Not necessarily. No. Actually, no. Frankly, I don't know enough about the science to see it that way. There are all kinds of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios out there. You look at places like Australia, which have been dealing with a terrible drought for many years. They have individual use down there to just a small number of gallons a day. I haven't gone down there and haven't seen how they're surviving, but they're surviving. So, who knows?

There are all kinds of things that could happen. I don't sit around thinking about apocalyptic scenarios, no. We talk about plagues that way too. National Geographic covered that a while back. It's not if, but when. A plague is going to wipe out a lot of people. Who knows?

It's a great story and it really is an example of how people need to come together in a collaborative community to try to work out problems. That's one of the upsides I've heard. I've heard some people talk about that. It is something that's going to make us work together and be more aware of our impact on the environment. There certainly can be some good spinoffs from that.

Read on for more from Jim Havey.

One anxiety I've heard people reference is that if you look at Los Angeles and how dependent that city is on Colorado's water supply, that if a drought is really something that Colorado faces, there is almost a give or take between Los Angeles and this state. What are your thoughts on that?

Coloradans have this misconception that this is our water. It's not our water. It's all committed to different states through a variety of compacts that we have to adhere to.

Colorado gets to keep basically about a third of the water that originates in this state. We are the hidden water state. There is a tiny bit of water that comes into Colorado from Wyoming, but everything else goes out of the state.

The problems in California -- I mean, we could be facing the same thing, because we've got to let that water go. We are committed by law, and this is United States law, that we've got to deliver that water. They've got huge problems out there. L.A., I think, gets a good amount of their water from the Colorado River. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at record lows. It's not a pretty picture at all. Arizona is in the same boat. They're getting their water out of the Colorado River canal that goes down there. They're facing a lot of serious cutbacks, too.

So we're going to see some golf courses go away. There is probably a first wave of things that are nonessential that are just going. Golf as a game is losing a lot of popularity and there are way more courses than we need now, anyway. There's a variety of solutions.

Look at Las Vegas. Las Vegas is probably the poster child for the effects of conservation. They doubled their population and did not change their water use at all through a variety of methods. There are so many different conservation things that can help. We're flushing drinking water down our toilets. That's crazy. It's purified drinking water that we flush down our toilets. Vegas changed all that. All the water for landscaping, golf courses and fountains is all grey water. It's all recycled water. So there are a lot of different things that can happen in that regard, too. It's nuts that in the desert we flush drinking water down our toilets.

Talk about the tensions you may be experiencing between an activist voice that might have gotten you interested in this and that need to have it be educational for Colorado Endowment for the Humanities. Have you found tensions there? What's that been like?

There isn't for me. There are lots of activist films out there. I think, to me, the main need is a public education piece that can show people both sides of the story, that can show people an objective view and then they can make up their own minds. It's not like we're not going to have activist voices in the film. We will. But they will be offset to the other side too. It's not going to have that bent to it.

What I'm trying to give people is more of a 360 so they can take a look at the big picture. This is not a matter of there is somebody right and somebody's wrong. This isn't black and white, and I think there is very little in the world that is black and white. It's all a million shades of gray, so to have the 360 is really what helps the broader viewpoint so that decisions that are made are made more in line with the common good in mind and not just an activist or fanatic position.

Are there ways our readers can get involved?

We've got a $350,000 budget on this film and we've raised $300,000 of it. We've got more of it coming in from other grants and things we've got out there, but our Kickstarter campaign will be for the last $20,000.

Find out more about the Kickstarter campaign for The Great Dividehere.

Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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