Getting out of the office, and into hot water

  • Geology professor Jeff Mount rows on Lowell Lake, Alsek River, in the Yukon

    Photo courtesy Jeff Mount

NAME Jeff Mount

VOCATION Geology professor

AGE 52

HOME BASE Davis, California

KNOWN FOR Pointing out that building houses below sea level and surrounding them with weak levees is a recipe for disaster

MOST RECENT EXPLOIT On a dare from his son, giving up his raft to kayak the Grand Canyon this summer: "I saw a lot of the canyon from the bottom side (of the Colorado River)."

Twenty-three years ago, geology professor Jeff Mount spent most of his time peering at rock, in an effort to reconstruct the environment circa 500 million BC. Then one day, a couple of students paid a call to Mount’s office at the University of California at Davis. Describing that visit, the professor sounds like a trash-talking river runner:

"These snot-nosed punks came over and said, ‘We think you should teach a class on the Tuolumne River.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because we can’t get a permit.’ " Mount rose to the bait. "It was an El Niño year," he says, "so the water was just immense."

Mount came back from his first river field course hooked, got certified as a whitewater guide, and ever since, he’s been taking his geology students for epic trips on rivers like the Colorado, the Skeena in British Columbia, and the Copper River in Alaska. "Rivers can teach us a lot of fundamentals about the kinds of processes that sculpt the surface of the earth," he says. They also taught Mount a lot about how humans affect natural processes. "Along the way, I began to speak publicly about how the way we manage rivers is in direct contravention to the way they actually work. We spend vast amounts of money to make rivers do things they don’t want to do, and at the top of that list is making them hold still."

In 1995, he published the formidably titled California Rivers and Streams: The Conflict Between Fluvial Process and Land Use, which is now something of a Bible for river folks in the state.

Then, in 2002, Mount’s life took a new turn when then-Gov. Gray Davis appointed him to the State Reclamation Board, an obscure body charged with overseeing the thousands of miles of levees that keep the waters of the San Francisco Bay-Delta from pouring into the farmland surrounding Sacramento.

There are 7 million acres of cropland in the Delta, and about 23 million people depend on it for drinking water. Today, the farmland is increasingly being covered by housing developments — there are currently plans for roughly 120,000 new homes in the Delta — and the Delta’s levees, like those in Louisiana, are not up to their task. Facing a raft of new development proposals, Mount and other members of the board began to publicly question the wisdom of building houses below sea level, in the path of danger.

Mount also spoke about his concerns that human efforts to straitjacket the Delta were killing it. All of the levees in the Delta have, he says, "frozen it in place, so it can’t adjust to changes in runoff and changes in sea level. It’s so out of equilibrium that eventually you’ll cross a threshold and it’ll reorganize itself. And it’s teetering on that point right now."

But last September, less than a month after Hurricane Katrina burst New Orleans’ levees and flooded that city, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, sacked the entire board. "It was a Saturday night massacre," says Mount. "We were all booted and a very pro-development board put in place."

The incident and the ensuing fallout helped make Mount’s name and his views more widely known. "It’s like when an actor dies; it’s a good career move. I even got profiled in The New York Times," he says. "But that’s not my career. My career is here, writing papers and teaching classes." Even though Mount’s off the reclamation board, however, he still speaks out frequently in the press about the plight and dangers of the Delta. He’s also preparing to take another class out on the water next summer — this time on British Columbia’s Taseko, Chilco and Chilcotin rivers.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

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