Fresno County Public Library (FCPL), in partnership with Steve Thao, produced Reflections of a Drought, a 20 minute documentary that collects interviews from Fresno County residents and their experience with the current drought, which began in 2010. We spoke with Project Director, Jonathan Waltmire about the project.
Tell us a little about yourself?
I am a Community Librarian for Fresno County Public Library (FCPL) in their WoW! (Without Walls) Department. My duties consist of community outreach for FCPL. Some of those are community events, working with nonprofit organizations, and promoting FCPL’s free resources including books, databases, and electronic media. I am a native Californian, growing up in the San Joaquin Valley in the Raisin Capital of the World, Selma California. A graduate of Fresno Pacific University and San Jose State University, my background includes a Bachelor’s of Arts in History, and a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science.
What inspired you to do this project?
Essentially, the library and I were inspired to pursue this project due to hearing many stories of hardship from our community members.
The current drought is the worst drought in recorded history and affects everyone in some way. Fresno County is one of the top agriculture producing counties in America, producing over $7 billion in agriculture revenue annually in a good year. Over 90% of the world’s almonds are grown in the Central Valley, not to mention the many kinds of produce including raisins, tree fruit, vegetables, and dairy products.. When drought occurs, as often happens in California, farmers have less water to irrigate their crops and the economic impact spreads like a ripple through the local community and beyond. The loss of revenue results in less local business, and commodity prices rise nationwide. The impact is devastating, with loss of jobs, loss of income, and loss of opportunities. The impact on urban populations is just as important. Over half of Fresno County’s population lives in Fresno and city residents were faced with tough choices about how their reduced water allotments should be used.
What did you hope to accomplish?
We hoped to collect testimonies from people impacted by drought, and bring awareness of the impact that water scarcity has on local communities. While conducting research and filming interviews for this project, it became clear that there is no easy solution. Water management and water rights have a long, often contentious, history in California. Who has access, who should have first rights, and what is the best way to use water are just some of the questions that Californians have been struggling with since California became a state. While we knew that we would not be finding clear answers through this project, we hoped that at least it will promote open dialogue, awareness, and understanding among Californians about the impact of the drought.
How did you go about making the documentary?
I had little to no experience with filmmaking before this project. Luckily, we had Steve Thao, an experienced videographer, on board. I feel like we both brought something to this project. Steve had the technical expertise and local connections. I used my knowledge of the local area, local history, and connections with subject experts to interview.
We were fortunate that the subject matter is so current and that due to the impact on all residents alike, everyone has an opinion. We also sought to seek balance in regard to content; we agreed that we needed to show how drought impacts rural and urban residents. Agriculture is a big part of the economy in Fresno County but the impact on cities is just as important. We felt that we needed a balanced approach, which we feel we accomplished. The list we ended up with included city managers, large scale farmers, small scale farmers, well drillers, and homeowners among others.
The editing process felt heartbreaking at times due to all the content that we wished we could include but could not. Interviewees would speak candidly at length on a variety of water matters. In the film, you hear personal stories of fruit trees being cleared, stories of residents having to pay fines for not reducing water usage, and jobs being lost. To truly discuss water issues as a whole though, would require more than a 20 minute film. In the end, we focused on the stories of the drought’s impact on people, which we feel we’ve accomplished.
What has been the response so far from the community?
The response from the community is very positive. The comments about the quality and content of the film are encouraging. Drought and water availability in California is a complex issue, there were more questions than answers from the community but that is a good thing. The audience has to think about its impact on water usage and what can be done to help.
What impact has the project already had?
The immediate impact this project has had is that the testimonials we filmed will encourage dialogue among viewers on the complex issue of water in California. The discussions following the showings were filled with a myriad of questions and comments about drought and water management in California. At the least, this project is initiating thoughtful contemplation and analysis of the drought. There is an element of action too, as we received comments of individual efforts to curb personal water use such as xeriscaping, conservation, and encouraging their circle of friends and family to do the same. It is nice to see many people practicing water conservation, the problem remains of the creation of larger scale plans statewide.
What do you hope will develop in the
My hope is that this project will have a part in an ongoing conversation in the search for better long-term solutions. During filming, I did notice that cities, irrigation districts, and water districts are leading the way in improved water management by building water storage facilities, recharge basins for underground aquifers, and water treatment plants, but there is no large scale plan for improving the current water storage and distribution systems in California. Droughts are a regular feature of our climate, and we need to plan for them.
Why are the humanities important? Why do they matter?
I will always think the humanities are important because we can better understand ourselves, our history, and our world. As a student of history, I think it is important to be aware of our past so that we can better understand how we got to the present, and to put into practice what we have learned as we move forward into the future. This project has shown me how important it is to gather differing perspectives for the betterment of our communities. That includes providing a bridge of understanding between different segments of society, so that an open dialogue for answers to hard questions such as how can we mitigate the effects of drought occurs more naturally. Humanities allow all of us to build better communities through careful study and understanding of stories and events that affect us all.
The film is on FCPL’s Youtube channel and can be viewed HERE.
Photo descriptions top to bottom: Fresno County Residents’ Frustration, Joe Del Bosque, Fresno farmer, unirrigated vineyard, Pine Flat Dam.