Running on Empty

Forget Disneyland, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Visit a California desperate after five years of withering drought.
Available on CBC Gem

Running on Empty

Nature of Things

Forget Hollywood, Disneyland and Silicon Valley. Get ready to see a very different California. Deep in the grip of an epic drought, the Golden State is looking a lot like the Dust Bowl these days. And there’s no shortage of finger-pointing and drought shaming.

A drought of historic proportions and the hottest year ever recorded have compelled California to impose unprecedented water consumption reductions. Celebrities and ranchers alike have been accused of stealing water. Things aren’t going well as California siphons off massive amounts from its few remaining wetlands and its sluggish rivers. Things are so bad that it’s reaching down deep to drain its aquifers of water that’s sat undisturbed since the end of the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago.

Host Nick Eyles on fallow field at sunsetNick Eyles in California.

RUNNING ON EMPTY is the story of a natural disaster and how Californians are responding as they face a water level that is dropping to zero. Suddenly, hard questions are being asked. Where did all the water go?  Who's fault is it? And what needs to change to save California from itself?

RUNNING ON EMPTY, and its host Canadian scientist Nick Eyles, take a road trip to examine how California drained its oasis dry and ignored decades of accepted water wisdom. Now, the state is facing a stark, new reality - there simply isn’t enough water to go around.

"This drought is different; it’s every bit as dry as those of the past but temperatures are up too, and California is literally ‘running on empty’." says Nick Eyles.
On Vancouver Island, summer droughts are the new normal

Along the way, RUNNING ON EMPTY will introduce you to:

  • Koren Nydick, an ecologist working in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park who keeps a close eye on the health of the state’s Giant Sequoias. And she doesn’t like what she sees. Arborist John Gathright takes Nick up a 270-foot tall Giant Sequoia to see the damage inflicted on the ultimate drought survivours.
  • In the San Joaquin - Sacramento Delta Nick catches a ride with a boatload of researchers from University of California, Davis. Fish and Wildlife biologist Peter Moyle explains that California’s insatiable appetite for the Delta’s means this vulnerable ecosystem exists in a state of permanent drought.
  • In Tulare County, we visit a place hit so hard by the drought that local wells are running dry — including the local fire station. Local firefighter Lucian Neely tells us how this affects his community and work.
  • Ric Ortega takes us to see one last remaining stretches of wetlands in California. (The state has lost a staggering 95% of its wetlands). Turns out the wetland was nothing but dry, parched earth. This crucial stopover of migrating birds is another casualty of the drought.
  • Joe Del Bosque is an almond farmer who has been cut off from his government supplied sources of irrigation water. Joe explains to us California’s complicated water rights and delivery system. And that right now he was losing out to the cities.
  • For a deeper perspective we visit retired hydrologist and current citrus fruit farmer Vance Kennedy. Vance opens our eyes to the mad rush to drain California’s groundwater. It’s like the gold rush all over again, but this time about water.
  • At the beautiful Wind Wolves Preserve, University of Minnesota scientist Dan Griffin studies ancient tree rings. He warned us that California has suffered through droughts that lasted decades, even up to a century long. Dan worries about what a drought like that would do to modern California.
  • NASA researcher Jay Famiglietti uses satellites to measure the depletion of groundwater resources. And what he’s learning keeps him up at night.
  • Carmel-by-the-Sea’s mayor Jason Burnett describes the delicate balance California’s cities must strike between the duty to protect the environment and deliver drinking water to citizens.
  • In Modesto, engineer Will Wong gives us a tour of a wastewater recycling facility that is turning icky toilet water into a valuable resource.
  • In Los Angeles, comedian Jason Saenz points out for us the absurd behaviour of some Californians in the drought, things like celebrities stealing water.
  • On the shores of the shrinking and dying Salton Sea we get a glimpse of the future for some of California. There’s not enough water to go around and that means some places are going to have to do without. Longtime resident Earl Griffis tells us this cautionary tale.

Crisscrossing the state, RUNNING ON EMPTY reveals jaw dropping, make-you-shake-your-head images of California’s drought.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: California is literally sinking. Nick Eyles shows us how much.

Many Californians see droughts the way Canadians see snowstorms. Just a bit of bad weather that will blow through.

But the science says otherwise.

Jay Famiglietti, NASA’s top water expert explains it Nick this way.

Interview with Director Mike Downie

“California is truly running out of water. It's been running out for decades. And so when we look at the total of all the snow and the water in the rivers and the reservoirs and the groundwater, we see this downward trajectory.”

This prompted Nick to follow up, “so, what you're saying is there's going to be major conflicts between the needs of the environment, city dwellers, industry, and the this huge farming sector.”

To which Jay answered, “I think that the conflicts are already happening. It’s happening now.”