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The Q&A: Merri Lisa Trigilio

In this week's Q&A, we interview Merri Lisa Trigilio, director of "Written on Water," a new documentary that looks at the depletion of groundwater in Texas and surrounding states.

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With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Merri Lisa Trigilio is the director of “Written on Water,” a new documentary that looks at the depletion of groundwater in the High Plains area of the United States. “Written on Water” is Trigilio’s feature directorial debut. Trigilio has an art degree in photography and film and a doctorate degree in geosciences.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: You pursued an art degree then decided to go for a doctorate in geosciences. Why did you decide to do that?

Merri Lisa Trigilio: Well, it was over the course of many years. It wasn’t just suddenly.

I did it because I had always been an outdoors person. I’ve done a lot of backpacking, that sort of thing. I just became really curious about the landscape and the geology of the places I had gone to.

I started taking some courses in that and it became my passion. I just went after it.

Trib+Water: Where did the idea of “Written on Water” come from?

Trigilio: Initially, I wanted to make a more traditional science documentary about the Ogallala Aquifer. And I had done my master’s degree at the University of New Mexico so I spent a lot of my time in the High Plains. It is very important in terms of geology and, really, a fascinating geological story behind it. I thought I would actually like to highlight this.

However, when I went out there and met a lot of the people in southwest Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and finally West Texas, I finally realized this was a human story.

The aquifer is depleting. The drama around that is how do people deal with a common resource that they also own property rights for the water. It sort of evolved as I got to meet the people out there in West Texas.

Trib+Water: What are some interesting things you’ve discovered in your research?

Trigilio: It was deposited six to 10 million years ago. The rivers were incredibly large, some 20 miles wide, that were eroding the Rocky Mountains.

To me, it was fascinating that it was such a broad deposition that covers hundreds of miles on the eastern front of the Rockies and the southern Rockies of Texas. That in of itself is fascinating. It’s really a one of a kind formation.

The whole way the landscape evolved interested me, and then also there’s a lot of global circulation … that all combine in this series of linkages that cause the Ogallala to be deposited. For me it’s a fascinating geologic story in terms of river deposition.

Trib+Water: Do you plan on doing another movie soon? What’s next?

Trigilio: Right now I’m making some films for the geology department at Arizona State University. We’re looking at geologic hazards, in particular at some of the volcanoes in Arizona. Making some short videos for that.

For me, water is important. It’s a resource we all need. I’m always fascinated by those stories. There’s a couple of aquifers here in Phoenix, where I’m living right now, that are being depleted, too. You see the same thing happening in California, the Middle East.

I might continue focusing on water issues.

Trib+Water: What do you think people should do to stop the depletion of groundwater resources?

Trigilio: My film actually strove to show the different ways people are trying to deal with the depletion of the aquifer. Some people used technology, subsurface drip irrigation. Choosing not to grow high water volume crops, such as corn. These are all personal decisions because they affect their lives. Every person has a different situation. I think that policy needs to support it some way.

Whether you incent people … there’s the carrot on the stick. I’d rather there be some incentive to actually conserve.

Forty percent of the water used in Texas comes from the Ogallala, so it’s an important issue, particularly for Texas and the whole High Plains.

I can’t say there’s one solution. I think it has to be a combination of things, and I also think people need to come to the table and talk about it. You really can’t say there isn’t a problem and avoid any kind of discussion about it. They’re hard discussions.

Trib+Water: How should this issue be approached?

Trigilio: If you can get by on the local level, then any kind of state legislation has much more success. However, what I’ve seen generally is that the state is worried about implementing these things because it can be so controversial. … I’m hedging because I don’t know the exact answer.

It’s a difficult problem. Part of the problem that I see is on the federal level. In order to have any sort of policy, they don’t have very good data. They don’t know very well how much the aquifers are declining. They don’t have great well data sets.

I think they’re working really hard on that. There are some initiatives out there. In order to make good decisions you do need to have that data, and that’s probably one of the first steps.

As a scientist, I need to know what my baseline data set is and from there we can make decisions.

I think the Texas Water Development Board is doing quite well … They’re doing a really good job in going out there trying to collect that data and make models so that policymakers can make good decisions.

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