Jerry Orlob: legendary mentor for California water engineers

Gerald T. Orlob (right) worked on water quality in California and worldwide for more than 50 years. He died March 23, 2013 at 88. Jerry and fellow UC Davis professors emeritus Ian King (middle), the late Ray Krone (left) and George Tchobanoglous (not shown) shaped generations of water professionals in California. Photo: 1999

By Jay Lund

Jerry was a giant. He pioneered the field of water quality modeling and system analysis in water and environmental engineering. He founded a series of influential consulting firms, many of which exist today. And he helped establish the excellence of environmental and water engineering programs at UC Davis.

What made Jerry a giant, though, was not only his considerable technical talents, but also his ability to inspire people to work together on important problems and his sincere respect for colleagues. This respect extended to family, office and technical staff. An individual alone can accomplish very little. His gentlemanly manner and people skills allowed him to accomplish truly big things and earn widespread respect.


Gerald T. Orlob

Jerry came to UC Davis’ civil engineering department as a part-time faculty member and become the department’s chairman and its first National Academy of Engineering member. He led a group of UC Davis faculty (including Ray Krone, Ian King and George Tchobanoglous) that together shaped more than a generation of water and environmental engineers in California.

The technical skill that I think contributed much to his success was his ability to organize problems. His water quality modeling was impeccably organized. The spatial and temporal domains and fundamental flow and transport equations were organized into 1, 2 or 3 dimensions; the water quality and chemical processes rode on the backs of these flows; equations for the biological processes to be represented lived off the water quality and flows. Engineering and economic performance might then be estimated for a range of conditions and management alternatives. The processes were discrete, but they all worked together.

Jerry did not shy from water and water quality management and policy problems in California and worldwide. His technical analysis of alternatives to the 1982 Peripheral Canal proposal was brilliant and influential. He consulted for many years with the South Delta Water Agency, working with Alex Hildebrand. His work on water quality models for the Delta, Sacramento River, and a host of other streams are foundational to our current capabilities in these areas and the careers of many, if not most, of the senior modelers and managers of these systems today.

Jerry left big shoes to fill.

Jerry left big shoes to fill.

As a young professor, what impressed me most was how Jerry worked with students. I sat in on his and Ray Krone’s classes, both to learn something of their topics and their approaches to teaching and being a professor. And I learned much from having his students involved in my classes and research. We shared several students, from my first PhD student Jim Englehardt (now a professor at the University of Miami).

Jerry inspired his students to do both good and important work. His enthusiasm and joy in their common work was infectious. He seemed to encourage students to explore courses from all over campus so they would enter their careers with a broader depth and ability to see problems. “Jerry’s kids”, as I have often heard them called, are his most important professional legacy. You can see them proudly everywhere.

Jay Lund currently holds the Ray B. Krone Chair in Environmental Engineering at UC Davis and is director of the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.


Remembrances can be made in the form of donations to the Gerald T. and Lillian P. Orlob Professorship in Water Resources Engineering. Checks should be made payable to the UC Davis Foundation, 1 Shields Ave. Davis, CA 95616, Attn: Oliver Ramsey, UC Davis College of Engineering.

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4 Responses to Jerry Orlob: legendary mentor for California water engineers

  1. Pingback: Science and report notes: Pesticides and the POD, Section 5937, fish and rice, water rights atlas, and Atmospheric River envy! | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

  2. Ian King says:

    I was privileged to know Jerry for more than 50 years from my graduate student days in Berkeley to working with him at WRE and RMA, and later on the faculty at UC Davis. In fact he served as my unofficial guide and mentor as we collaborated on numerous projects. My strongest memories are of his unfailing courtesy and consideration at a personal level and his remarkable ability to be in both academic research and the professional engineering world. Whenever I had a personal or technical issue he could always offer useful advice. Although distance and time put us out of touch over the last few years. I still frequently thought of him and the way he would look for real and practical solutions.

  3. As a Ph.D. student at UCLA, I read several reports written by Jerry Orlob and colleagues at Water Resources Engineers, a consulting firm he founded at Walnut Creek, CA. After my arrival at UC Davis in 1972, I visited Jerry at his firm. I was impressed by his knowledge and professionalism. Indeed, he was a gentleman and a scholar.

    Years later when he joined the faculty at UC Davis, I had the opportunity to interact with him professionally and socially. We attended many national and international conferences, providing us further opportunities to dine together and discuss research problems. The last time we met was in Germany in 2005.

    Jerry was one of the earlier investigators to employ systems analysis techniques to solve complex environmental and water resources problems. Without a doubt, he was a giant in the area of water quality modeling. As a colleague and friend, I will miss him.

  4. I am the Director of the Membership Office at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Jerry Orlob was a member and I have a memorial tribute written in his honor. it is NAE policy to ask a family member to review the text and approve the photograph for publication. Can someone please help me connect with on this children? I can be reached at or 202/334-2197.

    Thanks in advance for any help. Mary Lee

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