The new documentary Water & Power: A California Heist, which will have its world premiere Jan. 23 at the Sundance Film Festival, inevitably will be described as a modern-day Chinatown, since it focuses on how private interests both control and benefit from California's water supplies, which were in short supply even before the current four-year drought. So it's only fitting that the doc is directed by Marina Zenovich, whose credits include 2008's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, about the Chinatown director.
Zenovich readily admits that Chinatown is one of her favorite movies because "I love that world of greed and the lengths people will go to get what they want," but she adds that, despite being a native of Fresno, Calif. - her late father, George Zenovich, represented the area in both the California State Assembly and the California State Senate - she knew little about the state's water system until she was asked to take on the project by executive producer Alex Gibney, whose Jigsaw Productions produced the film for National Geographic.
But after spending a year researching and shooting the film, Zenovich came to the conclusion that "The hunger for water is never-ending. There are too many people wanting a precious resource that people are trying to privatize. So this film is like a wake-up call for that. I didn't know what I would find, but it was very intriguing getting there."
Zenovich follows figures like journalist Mark Arax, who proves to be a contemporary version of Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes character as he drives around Kern County, following pipes that have been laid to transfer water from one owner's farm to the next.
After sketching in the history of the massive California State Water Project, created by California Gov. Pat Brown in 1960, Zenovich's film focuses in on the Monterey Amendments of 1994, a pact, reached privately between the Department of Water Resources and State Water Project contractors, under which the Kern Water Bank, a huge underground aquifer, fell into the hands of, among others, Paramount Farms, a private corporation owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick. The film alleges that while the Resnicks have prospered by farming water-intensive crops like almonds and pistachios, residents in nearby Central California towns like Lost Hills and Porterville don't all have access to drinkable water.
"What's fascinating about the Monterey Amendments," says Zenovich, "[is] some people consider it the crowning achievement of their career, some people consider it a gift by the state of California to a few select individuals. That's the Chinatown aspect that was so interesting to dig into: to try to figure out what is really the truth."
While news reports about the drought tend to focus on open-air reservoirs, Water & Power digs deeper, looking at the underground water reserves and charging that hedge funds and private investors now are buying up farmland, not for the crops but for the underlying water rights. Looking beyond California, the film argues that it is all part of a push to turn water into another commodity that can be traded on worldwide markets.
"We focus on California, but is happening everywhere," says Zenovich. "Water is being commodified. Look at the end of The Big Short - the Christian Bale character is investing in water. That's an interesting clue. In light of the current political situation and the climate deniers, it's all connected."