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Delta Independent Science Board Member Spotlight - Jeffrey F. Mount, PhD

October 2011

Along with being a professor in the Geology Department at UC Davis, Dr. Jeff Mount has also been a member of the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) since its inception in late 2010. The Delta Reform Act of 2009 required the formation of the DISB. Before that he had been a member and chair of the CALFED Independent Science Board and various other Delta science panels. His service, combined with the academic research he’s been conducting in the Delta and Central Valley, the several books and publications he’s contributed to and the numerous academic awards and honors he’s won, underscores his commitment to the Delta and water issues.

What kind of unique perspective/expertise do you bring to the development of the Delta Plan?

I have been conducting academic research in the Delta and Central Valley for more than 15 years. Nothing beats having that kind of experience when reviewing something like the Delta Plan. There are many physical, biological, political and economic constraints that plans can miss. This is why you have a mix of Delta ISB members, including those with direct experience with the Delta, and those from outside who bring fresh perspectives.

As a geologist who works on rivers, I tend to take the long view on actions that we might pursue in the Delta. It is not enough to resolve the crisis of the day with a quick fix. The Delta is a changing place that will present major challenges over the course of many decades. Ignoring those changes only ensures that they are more costly to deal with in the future. That is why I nag so much about taking future conditions into account when planning.

What is your interest in water policy?

I am a fluvial geomorphologist by trade, but inherently interested in how this work translates into and/or constrains water management policy and on-the-ground actions. It\'s great to talk about stuff. It\'s better to actually do stuff.

Explain your desire/willingness to sit on the Delta ISB.

Every scientist interested in policy issues should sit on a board like the Delta ISB. You learn a lot in the process and, done right, it can make a significant difference in outcomes.

What has your experience on the Delta ISB been like to date?

I have enjoyed the interaction with other scientists on the Board, working with Delta Science Program staff, which I admire greatly, and getting to watch the complex management of the Delta evolve over time. That said, I am often frustrated by our failure to use the horsepower of the Delta ISB more fully and effectively. But this is a new day and we are working those kinks out in this new format. I am very optimistic.

What should the public and stakeholders know about the Delta ISB’s efforts?

Most people do not understand that the Delta ISB, under the 2009 legislation, is principally a review board. That is, the Delta ISB is supposed to provide assurances that the science used to support decision making is the best available, and to make recommendations where it can be improved. It is not a think tank, nor is it there to settle disputes in the manner of a National Research Council Committee. This is, in effect, an oversight board.

Much of your focus seems to be on seismic matters and levee conditions. What is your perception of the condition of the levees and what does the future hold?

I am perhaps most notorious for sounding the alarm about the aggregate risks associated with the levees and the very high costs associated with mitigating that risk. But most of my work, particularly with my colleagues at UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California, has been on how to manage the Delta for a broad range of goals, including water supply reliability and ecosystem improvements. Levees are simply one component of that management since levees define the Delta landscape and control its hydrology...something lost in most debates about the future of the Delta. That said, no amount of wishing it were not true will change a fundamental fact: every review of the Delta levees conducted by independent scientists and engineers from around the world has concluded that the levees are fragile and that conditions are changing in an unfavorable way. We are really only arguing about how fragile and how to prioritize investments.

Who have you worked with in the past? And what have you done for them?

I have helped a number of non-profits and agencies over the years on river management and restoration issues and I currently serve on the Board of Directors of the non-profit American Rivers. I have also served on the State Reclamation Board (precursor to the Central Valley Flood Board), and sat on innumerable review committees.

What are you most passionate about professionally? What most excites you about your work and the contribution you can make?

I genuinely enjoy seeing good quality science translated into actions on the ground. And this applies to all aspects of water management, with my favorite being floodplain restoration, such as those efforts carried out by The Nature Conservancy at the Cosumnes Preserve. Perhaps the most satisfying work in my career, however, has been the association with the faculty at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis–Jay Lund, Peter Moyle and Richard Howitt in particular–and Ellen Hanak from PPIC. Only once in a career do you get to work with people of that caliber who have such broad, synthetic knowledge. Our most recent effort, “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation,” was a lot of work and a lot of fun at the same time. I am very lucky to have stumbled on these folks.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)