Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert’s documentary focuses on the man-made wreckage brought to the area around the Columbia Basin in southeastern Washington state. The chaos began in the 1930s, when the federal government disfigured nature’s riparian routes with the construction of hydroelectric dams; that violated the treaty with local Indian tribes, who still cannot access their fishing rights.
In the 1940s, the creation of the Hanford nuclear site enabled the development of plutonium that was used in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and the subsequent arming of America’s Cold War nuclear warheads. But over the years, pollution from the Hanford site reached lethal levels, requiring a massive environmental clean-up that is still underway.
Meanwhile, native sagebrush was torn up to accommodate farming on land never intended for cherry trees or wine vineyards – not to mention a tacky tourism industry designed to cash in on these crops. More recently, overdeveloped suburban sprawl has further taxed natural resources.
It is a depressing view of planning gone seriously awry – to the point that some fish need to be transported by truck and barges to migrate properly to their spawning grounds. Sadly, the film is overcrowded with too many voices, most of whom are less than profound (scenes with a tattoo artist and a fundamentalist preacher should’ve been dropped, while comments by various ecologists and academicians could’ve been expanded to offer a greater understanding of lingering health concerns from the plutonium waste). Oddly, no one in a position of authority from the local, state or federal government is on hand to offer explanations, let alone solutions, to the glaring problems.
The subject is jolting, but it is a shame that “Arid Lands,” like the Columbia Basin, didn’t enjoy better planning.