Skip to main content


Seminar on the California Delta


The California Delta plays a prominent role in California’s water system and the subsequent controversies over water for fish versus for humans, with enormous economic, social, and ecological consequences. In 1982, California voters rejected a proposal to build a canal around the Delta to deliver water more efficiently to southern users. However, global climate change, increasing salinity in the Delta, and the collapse of fisheries have sparked renewed interest in a peripheral canal.

Trainers Peter Moyle and Jay Lund developed an interdisciplinary seminar on the California Delta and Peripheral Canal offered to REACH IGERT trainees and other UC Davis students. The seminar consisted of student-led discussions and guest lectures from academic and agency hydrologists, fish biologists, economists, an environmental historian, a geologist, an attorney, and policy makers on the complex issues that surround water use in the Delta. These lectures, videotaped by staff from the John Muir Institute at UC Davis, are available to the public for download at One such lecture, by environmental historian and REACH trainer Louis Warren, was offered in conjunction with an environmental law class taught by REACH co-PI Holly Doremus.

The course culminated in a field trip around the Delta and a mock legislative hearing, with students role-playing particular legislators, agency representatives, or members of stakeholder groups. The hearing contained many of the elements of a real hearing, and according to one student, helped participants gain insight into what goes on at a real legislative hearing. Another student remarked, “[This class] was an ambitious undertaking and I will recall the interdisciplinary collection of experts, topics and students as a highlight of my time here at Davis.”

Address Goals

The course brought together considerations from geology, engineering, ecology, history, law, and economics within a single case study. As a result, students were exposed to disciplines other than their own and forced to deal with the policy implications that result. For example, a student from entomology led a discussion on the effects of irrigated agriculture on increasing soil salinity. A non-trainee remarked, “As a non-scientist, I learned a lot from great student and faculty presentations.”

In addition to leading and participating in discussions, students were asked to write an op-ed and a fact sheet on a topic pertaining to the Delta. One of these was used as a handout by Professor Jay Lund when he testified before a committee of the California State Assembly. Further, the faculty member who taught the course has encouraged several students to revise and submit their op-eds for publication by the Sacramento Bee or other newspaper.

Another student, a Nebraska native, commented that he has had many discussions with his father about to agriculture, water rights, and urban users in California relative to Nebraska. Although Nebraska has a smaller population and larger aquifer, he can see lessons from California for Nebraska citizens if they want to avoid a similar water crisis.

In addition to the five REACH IGERT students, the 23 other enrollees included students from geography, environmental engineering, economics, and ecology. One trainee remarked, “This is a good case of where stakeholders are forced to think about the viewpoints of others…yet still don’t have solutions.” Another commented that the multidisciplinary perspectives presented bring in new challenges that increase in complexity because of local, regional, and statewide politics.