Jeffrey Mount was dubbed "Dr. Doom" for his Delta forecast as a UC Davis professor.

Q&A: Delta's 'Dr. Doom' leaves UC Davis for new water role

Published: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 1:56 pm

Dr. Doom has retired.

On Dec. 1, Jeffrey Mount quietly retired after 33 years as a geology professor at UC Davis.

Mount was given the "Dr. Doom" nickname by the media in the 1990s after he unveiled a theory that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, is doomed to ecological collapse.

The Delta's old levees, built of sand and river muck, circle islands that have become deep holes in the ground because of oxidation of their peat soil after a century of farming.

It is only a matter of time, Dr. Doom pronounced, before an earthquake, a major storm or sea level rise transforms the Delta from a complex tidal estuary into a vast, salty lake.

Mount's ability to articulate this scenario, clearly and bluntly, turned him into a public figure. But research by other experts made it more than one man's theory. The U.S. Geological Survey later estimated there is a 60 percent chance that numerous Delta islands will flood by 2050.

The idea is still hotly disputed by many Delta residents who have faith in their levees. But the threat now guides state and federal policymakers seeking a way to secure the Delta's habitat and water supply against future cataclysm.

Mount, 58, may have retired from academia, but he'll continue working on many of the same issues. He has formed a consulting partnership with Anthony Saracino, former California water program director at the Nature Conservancy.

Why leave UC Davis?

I felt ready to transition from the role of a faculty member, who basically tells you what you're doing wrong but holds no responsibility, to an actual practitioner. You've got this accumulated knowledge. Can you get something done? Or are you just going to keep yelling at someone, telling them to get something done?

What is your new consulting venture about?

We're helping foundations make investments in water resource management and ecosystem management. It's basically helping them maximize their return on investments in restoration work.

What was it like, as a scientist, when the "doomed Delta" research made you a public figure?

I became a public figure because I talk a lot. I shoot my mouth off. When you do that, of course, there's a certain amount of risk, but it's extremely important that faculty members do that. You make everybody mad at some time or another. In fact, I think that's a good measure as to how well you're doing.

How did you feel about the Dr. Doom label?

I was completely OK with that. If you take yourself too seriously in any of this stuff, really, you're miserable. Indeed, the most miserable people in the whole water business in California are the ones who take themselves just too seriously. Besides, it fit perfectly.

You agreed to serve on the state Reclamation Board (now the Central Valley Flood Protection Board) from 2000 to 2005. Why?

I realized there was a massive gulf between what we do and think about in the academic environment and what actually happens in the political arena. It was just a terrific opportunity to learn how things really function and recognize that it's messy and incomplete, and decisions are made without sufficient information. It isn't anything like what academics write about.

Is Dr. Doom's message still relevant?

My mind hasn't changed on that at all. The risk is still very high. This place is going to reorganize itself one way or another, and we need to manage that reorganization. Dealing with that low-probability, high-consequence event is so difficult that we tend to just ignore it. I call it the Fukushima effect. We may fail into a solution here, and we will just simply adapt it as it fails.

How do you feel about the fate of the Delta today?

I feel like we're probably down to our last shot in the Delta. It is the same white-hot political issue it has always been. The part that continues to confuse me is that the antagonists do not seem to have their own self-interests guiding their decisions. Whether you are the environmental groups or the water contractors or the in-Delta interests, a hard line that ultimately leads to stalemate is harmful to all in the end. Ultimately, some compromises are going to be necessary for everybody to benefit.

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