The new documentary A River Between Us details the fate of the Klamath River in Oregon and California, and the bitter divides it has birthed over the last two centuries. The river is one of the largest on the western seaboard, and has been exploited since the arrival of the first miners during the great western gold rush. On the heels of the miners were loggers, ranchers, and farmers. Then, with the industrial age, four hydroelectric dams were built, decimating the seasonal salmon runs and causing other native fish species to suffer. The health of the river suffered as metals from mining, sediment from logging, and chemicals from farming entered the river — with dams halting the fresh water that would help clean out the pollutants. The public and political battles over the river pitted neighbors against each other, and created buckets of bad blood.
"Water is the oil of our times," says Jason Atkinson, the former Oregon state senator and one-time GOP candidate for governor who is responsible for the making of A River Between Us. "A limited natural resource that forces everyone in the West to pay attention." Realizing that the only way to save the river was bipartisan cooperation, Atkinson, and leaders from the 42 organizations who were fighting over the river began to talk. Over several years they began to work together and craft an agreement that would satisfy the needs of all.
In 2010 the Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Democratic Governor of Oregon Ted Kulongoski, the head of PacifiCorp (owner of the dams), and the leaders of three Native American Tribes all signed an agreement to remove all of the dams. Both states funded the work and the Department of the Interior gave their blessing. Then it got sent to Congress where it has languished since, a political volleyball both sides of the aisle pass back and forth for political capitol.
One of the primary political forces behind the agreement, Atkinson quit politics to make a movie to raise awareness about the river. "Here I am a public figure, I have run for all of these offices, and I have done all of this stuff. But then you look back and you see what really matters. What really matters is not the pettiness of politics. What really matters is giving away all of the credit and working to change the world," says Atkinson. "My world is this river and I can change it."
Atkinson hopes the movie will act as a lever for awareness during the last year of President Obama’s term, a time when past presidents have fast-tracked pet projects — often in the name of the environment. "Most of the work left does not need Congress to be involved," says Atkinson. "The time for action is now, we timed this film so it could gain widespread exposure during his last year. If we wait for a new President it could be caught up in political infighting and never pass." So if the President decided to take ownership of the four dams through the Bureau of Reclamation and proceed forward with the dam removal it might just be because of Atkinson’s film. "All I need is fifteen minutes of the Presidents time to explain the importance of the project," says Atkinson. "I could hand him the largest conservation project in American history, hopefully this movie accomplishes that."
Chris Myron on Vimeo.