Jessica Yu's 'Last Call at the Oasis' made her a water activist

It starts with some fairly simple gestures, like not leaving the water running while you're brushing your teeth.

Peter Gleick, one of the experts in the film, made the point — [there is a] difference between conservation and efficiency. There's personal sacrifices people can make; you can buy more efficient appliances, and industry can create things to help lessen the waste — so it's not, gee, I can only bathe once a week.

What did you have to leave on the cutting room floor?

It's funny, you fight so hard for stuff not to be taken out, then when it's gone you don't really miss it. I did have a little section that I loved, called the canary in the coal mine. We kept hearing that [this or that situation] was "the canary in the coal mine." The [dying] frogs are the canary in the coal mine. Lake Mead is the canary in the coal mine. So I had this montage where everyone was saying this was the canary in the coal mine — the idea was that there's a lot of canaries dying in coal mines that we're not linking together. But I think the film makes that point by bringing things together at the end.

Some of the nastiest emails I've ever gotten were about a column pointing out that bottled water has fewer testing standards than plain old city tap water — and that a lot of bottled water is tap water.

Remember this column in Vanity Fair, where celebrities would talk about their favorite brand of bottled water? I think they finally dropped that, but people are still surprised. In a lot of cases people feel like they're getting something better, and of course they're not.

L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan's review said you did the CSI version of the water story. Is it an unfolding mystery?

Tyrone Hayes, the scientist at UC Berkeley, is trying to figure out how atrazine [a herbicide in the water supply] is affecting frogs, and he talks about CSI, following the trail of damage. I don't know if [the film] is the CSI approach; we don't start out with one big thesis and prove it. We start with some ideas and then at the end come to something.

As TV news does fewer long-form investigative stories and documentaries, will films like yours step in to address these big issues?

I don't know. I hope there's a market for audiences wanting to know what's going on. You look at a film like"Food, Inc.,"which my producer Elise Pearlstein produced — you could probably tie it to the demise of pink slime in the past few weeks. So I think there's a real role for these films.

Is there the kind of organized political opposition to changing water policy that there is to climate change science?

Maybe I'm naive about this, but I don't think it's that organized. It's more, say, that polluters can choose to believe that the impact on the general water supply will not be great, or that it's difficult to prove. It's more neglect, because in the United States we've been so fortunate when it comes to water.

And in California and the West especially, where, as Mark Twain supposedly said, "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over."

Water law — you could make a very scary film about the problems and legalities. Water laws are based on a different population, a different climate, everything — but people still think they have the right to water that someone was promised 100 years ago. It's so complicated and contentious. But then again California is a kind of a microcosm for these kinds of water conflicts around the world.

You're not on street corners leafleting people about the water crisis, but you are a believer now?

You don't want to make a film as an activist, but making a film can make you become an activist. I don't want people to feel like they've witnessed propaganda, and I don't think the film is that. But when you learn all these pieces and put them together, it's hard not to feel like you want other people to know. At one point off camera I was asking Jay Famiglietti about speaking up. He said, "I do have colleagues who say you should just put the work out there — that's where your job ends." He said, "You know the average number of citations for a published academic work? One." One. He said, "If you were in a crowded theater and you smelled smoke, you would yell." He said, "I can't not yell."

patt.morrison@latimes.com

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

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