UCD professor warns of human attempts to control rivers

October 22, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

UC Davis geology Professor Jeff Mount gave an unusual press conference last week on the American River. He took a group of reporters down a stretch of the South Fork to illustrate a new approach to managing rivers. He also suggested they could learn more about the subject by reading his latest book, "California Rivers and Streams," just published by the University of California Press.

After lunch, TV and print reporters who had deadlines to meet left the river to return to work but a smaller, hardier bunch stayed on to experience a stretch of whitewater ending at Salmon Falls bridge. One raft was guided by Mount, the other by professor of geophysics Jim McLain. It was a perfect, sunny day with mild temperatures and a hint of fall in the air. At the height of the season in midsummer, the river is awash in rafts. But on this day two rafts alone owned the river.

Rafters are a crafty bunch. They don't usually talk about the number of times they've accidentally dumped the rafts (and all the occupants) into the river until the trips are over. It was after last week's successful trip (no one went swimming) that Mount admitted what happened. Last May, all the UC Press editors connected with his book came up from Los Angeles for a little river-rafting fun. At one point during the trip, Mount's raft was caught by something - a rock or a watery hole -- and everyone went into the river for an unexpected swim.

"And you still got published?" I asked.

"It was too late to stop it...the galleys were done," he said, grinning.

But Mount's book is not about river adventure stories. Instead, it is a serious academic book with a timely message. He shows how applying lessons from basic science can make a dramatic difference in successfully coping with the state's flood-prone rivers.

"We need to learn to work with our rivers, rather than against them," he says.

For instance, instead of deciding that the only way to deal with flooding is to use a blunt-tool engineering solution and build a dam, Mount suggests that people not build homes and towns that encroach on the flood plain. While he agrees we can't turn back history and eliminate buildings that have been erected too close to the rivers, there's no need to compound the error, especially in fast-growing Central Valley river towns. These towns depend on agriculture, he says, which rivers assist when they regularly flood their banks. In the long run, working with rivers will save state taxpayers a lot of money.

Working against the river not only costs money, but it causes heartache, too, Mount says. He pointed out a neatly landscaped small house built along the very edge of the American River.

"That house will disappear," he predicted. "Maybe not this year or next, but one of these years." He explained how the builder picked just the wrong place to construct a home, on the outside bend of the river, and how no amount of riprap will be able to contain the river's force when the state experiences another wet winter.

Mount says the floods of last January showed how human efforts to control rivers have failed or caused even bigger problems. It's cheaper, safer and more environmentally sound to adapt a river than to force it to adapt to us. Traditional approaches aimed at river control - building levees, channels and dams -- conflict with a river's natural behavior, a behavior that has already been unnaturally altered by dams, urbanization, grazing, logging, mining and other land-use changes in the Sierra foothills.

Floating down the calm stretches of the river, watching a doe in the bushes at the water's edge and a blue heron overhead, it was hard to believe that the American ever might cause problems. Mount puts it this way: The activity of the river is like a soldier's life: 98 percent boredom, 2 percent terror.

For an overview of the book, "California Rivers and Streams," check the geology department's World Wide Web site at http://www-geology.ucdavis.edu/.

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