'Breaking Point' Documentary Wins Best of Festival Award

Environmental Issues and Solutions at the 2015 Julian Film Festival


Last updated 10/22/2015 at 10:55am

Spaceship Earth is a closed environmental system of naturally interacting processes, so if that system goes south on us while we're hurtling through space, there is no emergency exit to safety.

That was pretty much the call-to-arms for this year's Julian Film Festival held on Aug. 21-22, with documentary films selected for their ability to raise the public's collective environmental consciousness about problems affecting the only planet we have, and even some solutions for avoiding disaster.

This reporter saw seven of the nineteen films shown at the festival, but will report on only two of the seven for this article. My BA degree is in Environmental Studies with a minor in biological science from U.C. Santa Barbara, and I worked as an energy and environmental consultant to federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Commerce Department back in the late-70s. So I have a special appreciation of what was being presented in the two films reviewed below.

The winner of this year's Best of Festival Award went to a documentary on a subject near and dear to all Borregans – the potential fate of the Salton Sea. 'Breaking Point' was a four-year film project by writer, producer, and director Bill Wisneski from Palomar College Television. He began with the intention of making a film about the geology of the Salton Sea area, but when he saw what was happening, and about to happen, he switched gears. Wisneski tells a cautionary tale of the steady descent from what was once the 2nd most popular California resort community to what is now a bleak and chemically toxic shadow of its former self. The Salton Sea is in serious trouble, and few people outside the immediate region are even aware of the problem.

A critical regional water resource management agreement is set to expire in 2017, so if the solutions for Salton Sea reclamation already identified in numerous studies cannot be funded and put into effect rather immediately, the entire area could, according to Wisnesky, "Become the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history."

Millions of birds within 264 identified species use the Salton Sea as a replacement for wetlands lost elsewhere on the coastline over the past decades. And they rely upon the inland sea's fish supply.

But the fish die off as the salinity increases due to evaporation. As the water evaporates, the dry lake beds contain huge quantities of toxic chemicals from agricultural, industrial, and manufacturing runoff. Those chemical elements are picked up by the local winds, at times fierce, and dispersed throughout the region. While we here in Borrego Springs smell hydrogen sulfide or dead fish on occasion, other chemicals in the wind and dust contain known carcinogens, thus putting a huge regional population at risk for lung- and blood-related illnesses.

According to the film, the direct and indirect economic and medically-related costs (not including loss of life) of doing nothing over the next thirty years could reach $70 billion dollars. Yes, that's with a "b." The cost to 'fix' the problem? About 1/3 of the cost of doing nothing. But as the film points out, the issue has gone up to the top of the political pipeline and back down again so many times, over so many years, that it's doubtful the state or federal government will suddenly acquire the political will to make the necessary investments in a recovery project for the Salton Sea. That is, if people affected by the problem remain silent.

The film shows how a Salton Sea restoration project, using existing and expanded energy resources – geothermal, Solar, and even an algae-based biomass fuel – could pay for itself and provide complete restoration and self-maintenance. But again, that would take years, if not decades, so it's a matter of priority for the lawmakers who would need to approve immediate capital investments. And they would have to commit to it politically for decades. The film implies that politicians have thus far managed only to produce study after study on the problem, but have failed pretty miserably at appropriating actual funding to get the Salton Sea restoration ball rolling.

But on a more uplifting note, a vocal and active citizenry can make a difference, evidenced by the film that won the Spirit of the Festival Award, 'Dryden: The Small Town that Changed the Fracking Game,' a film by Chris Jordan-Block of the environmental activist group EarthJustice.

In the rural upstate New York town of Dryden, citizens were pitted against an energy consortium that had mineral rights to the oil and gas deposits underlying the entire community. The industry reps used intimidation tactics on the residents, telling them, "We have the power, we are coming, so get out of the way or leave," said a Dryden resident and film participant, one of many residents who faced temporary damage, ranging from fracking-induced earthquakes to permanent damage to their aquifer-based water supplies.

Hydraulic 'fracking' uses very high pressure to inject chemically toxic and environmentally persistent compounds to recover oil and gas deposits otherwise unobtainable by conventional wells. Once those compounds reach an aquifer, it becomes essentially useless. Forever.

But one Dryden resident, Marie McRae, fought back, and she got others to join her, first by community meetings, then one-by-one via petition signature. Eventually, the whole community became aware of the potential for destruction ahead, and they deluged the local planning commission with a petition that made the commission members aware of what was at stake.

The community could not legally enact or enforce regulations on the industry directly. But, lawyer Helen Slotje, who worked on the Dryden community legal effort, discovered via research that the community could legally promulgate local land-use ordinances (not considered regulations according to New York law) that would have to be followed by everyone.

We can't regulate it," said Slotje, "But we can say no." And they did just that. The residents saved their community merely by passing an ordinance 'prohibiting' fracking everywhere within the jurisdiction of the local planning commission. After several court appeals, the New York Supreme Court in 2014 upheld Dryden's action.

With reference to 'Breaking Point,' it will surely require a very high level of citizen involvement across the region to prevent the potential demise of the Salton Sea.

The other five films this reporter saw each had their own unique voice on environmental issues, and I found them all to be both entertaining and informative. The complete list of participating films and winners can be found at http://www.julianfilmfestival.com