20 Years Ago a Pretty Good Idea: The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

by Jeffrey Mount

Our beloved home.

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences turns 20 years old this month.  I am the first Director of the Center.  The current Director — Jay Lund — asked me to write an  account of the origins of the Center, including some reflection on any key lessons.

The Center was and remains an academic start-up.  Although the administration at the time was supportive, the intellectual venture capital to get it going came from the faculty. And it was really a handful of faculty, staff and students that made this program work.

In the late 1990’s, institutions around the country were coming to grips with consequences of the traditional research university structure.  Built around narrowly-defined, discipline-based colleges and departments, the 20th century university had made great strides in research and education.  But increasing specialization, while important for advancing basic understanding, was not up to the task of addressing society’s big challenges.  Solutions to complex, large-scale problems lie at the boundaries of disciplines.  This is especially pertinent to the many economic, social and environmental dimensions of managing water.

From left: Jay Lund, Peter Moyle, and Jeffrey Mount.

The Center came about when Peter Moyle and I – a fish biologist and a geologist – began comparing ideas and understandings of the effects of seasonal inundation on a local floodplain.  From this early partnership, the concept of the Center was born.  It was to be an academic home for water management problem solving — not fundamental research — that relied on collaboration between faculty and students from diverse fields. It was to be a bridge between academic silos and, most important, it was to be useful to California.

From this effort — and a lot of trial and error — we learned a few key lessons.

Timing is everything.  We got this Center going in fall of 1998. In the previous year, California had the great Central Valley flood, which followed the 1987-92 drought, one of the most punishing in state history.  There was unprecedented attention to solving the problems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at all levels of government. The Packard Foundation, which was interested in fostering science in support of environmental decision-making, provided Center start-up funds.  The CALFED Bay-Delta Program provided early research funding, and helped to institutionalize the science/policy feedback loop that has become a hallmark of the Center.

Good ideas are of little value if they don’t have champions.  Inertia is a powerful force in institutions as large and complex as UC Davis.  The only way to overcome this—and to promote new approaches and ideas—is to have dedicated champions willing to take risks for you.  Beyond the faculty members involved in the enterprise, there were key individuals on and off campus who went to bat for us.  This included folks like Bob Floccini, Director of the John Muir Institute for the Environment, Bob Grey and Virginia Hinshaw, Provosts who saw the value of this work, and deans like Peter Rock who embraced the approach.  Off campus champions were people like Michael Mantell of Resources Legacy Fund who—representing the Packard Foundation—gave the Center its first large grant, and Mike Eaton of The Nature Conservancy who invited us down to the Cosumnes River Preserve to conduct experiments on their floodplain.

Leverage good ideas with good people.  No matter how good the idea, if it is not staffed by outstanding people, it will not succeed.  The Center, during its early start up years, attracted a lot of people to work in it.  But we discovered early on that multi-disciplinary centers are not a good fit for everyone.  Whether faculty, research staff or students, the five key ingredients for successful Center collaborators were:

  • the ability to play well with others (the most important!)
  • a genuine interest in learning from each other
  • commitment to spending resources on growing the common enterprise, rather than financing one’s own projects
  • a desire to make a tangible difference, rather than to just publish papers
  • a sense of humor, preferably self-deprecating

    The original Watershed Lab, Crab Louie, and our guru for the five traits of a successful collaborator.

Individuals with these five attributes prospered in the early years of the Center.  Indeed, one of the  most productive collaborations that I was involved in included Peter Moyle (fish biology), Jay Lund (engineering), Richard Howitt (agricultural economics) and eventually Ellen Hanak  (economics – from the Public Policy Institute of California).  This also applied to many of the early student founders, like Carson Jeffres, Wendy Trowbridge, Kaylene Keller, Josh Viers, and  staff people like Cheryl Smith, Ellen Mantalica and Diana Cummings, who wanted to see the Center thrive as much as any of the principals did.

Good ideas need a good home.   A physical home creates identity, both for those working in the Center and for those who work with the Center.  And identity—or branding as it is called today—is key to success.  A physical home also makes it easier for people to collaborate and to administer the enterprise.  Lucky for us, two off-campus champions—Senator Mike Machado and Jerry Meral (then of the Planning and Conservation League)—saw this need, and collaborated to place funding for the Watershed Sciences Building in a successful 2000 bond bill.

Building the Watershed Center from scratch involved taking a timely good idea, cultivating champions, attracting good colleagues and giving it a good home.  For all involved, it was a challenge to put it together, but it was also a lot of fun.  I am gratified to see that 20 years later, and under Jay Lund’s able stewardship, it is still going strong.  Happy 20th anniversary, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center. He is an emeritus professor at UC Davis in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. 

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2 Responses to 20 Years Ago a Pretty Good Idea: The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

  1. Judy Adler says:

    Your remarks are very insightful on the evolution of an important public policy organization. I am an environmental educator focused on water conservation. Two bills, SB558 and SCA 9 are working their way through the legislature on the topic of rainharvesting that I had a part in initiating with Senator Glazer’s office. I would like to collaborate with your organization on promoting rainharvesting more broadly than simply for homes. How do I achieve this?The topic will be addressed by the LA Times on-line later this month. The Green Coalition of s. CA supports the bills. Low-cost, easy to install systems to capture and store rainwater need to be part of the state’s water management program to preserve drinking water, restore groundwater levels, reduce stream pollution, protect Delta fish populations, and engage citizens in water conservation.

  2. Celeste Cantu says:

    Happy 20th birthday UC Davis Center for watershed sciences. The center has been inspirational from the beginning in setting a path for inquiry and policy development. Thank you for all of it.

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