UC Water Academy


Offered exclusively through UC Water, and led by Professor Joshua Viers (UC Merced), Dr. Ted Grantham (UC Berkeley), and Dr. Sarah Yarnell (UC Davis), the UC Water Academy is a spring/summer intensive course open to UC undergraduate and first-year graduate students in water resources-related fields. The cohort for 2018 is set to begin their journey through the Tuolumne and Mono Lake watersheds, source water for San Francisco and Los Angeles, on June 23. You can follow them at #ucwa2018.

The course is intended to train the next generation of California water leaders via immersive learning about California’s water resources, policies, and management approaches.

Knowing Our Water: The UC Water Academy Journey

This video is a look at the UC Water Academy, an experiential educational inaugurated in 2017 by the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative that aims to train the next generation of water leaders in the state. After three months of studies online, the students from four UC campuses visited key water infrastructure sites, met with experts in agriculture, conveyance, and natural resources management, and finally rafted the South Fork of the American River. They share their experiences through interviews and essays. 


The first UC Water Academy takes on the American River

By Leigh Bernacchi

By mid-summer 2017, ten of the University of California’s best water students have dispersed across the state. Some graduated hours before their two week tour of the state’s water system and have resumed a well-deserved post-baccalaureate vacation. Three jumped into their own graduate research. Another returned to the UC Merced lab to assist graduate students in calibrating sensors in vernal pools. One followed returned to the public utility where they had interned for three summers.

They are engineers, poets, ecologists, biologists, artists, historians, and graduates of the first UC Water Academy.

Professors Ted Grantham and Joshua Viers built on their own experiences in field courses on wild rivers at UC Davis, where they met in 2011. After planning for over a year, the co-authors of several California water management studies, settled on a 1200-mile, 12-day trip through the state’s key water infrastructure sites, from pipelines to planted fields, and places of controversy and cooperation.

The intensity of the trip was a necessity, according to Prof. Viers of UC Merced.

“California's future is intertwined with its water future, which is uncertain. For a sustainable future we need water leaders that appreciate the complexity and benefit of solving our water challenges. This need is not just for California, but also for our planet.”

On June 18, 2017, water students from UC Merced, Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz packed into vans, “Van Halen” and “Van Gogh,” with camping and rafting gear, laptops, cameras, and mix tapes. Established as the key educational component of the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, the UC Water Academy takes experiential learning to the heights of California snowpack and the bottom of the Tulare Basin wells, studying reservoirs, canals, fruit trees, and forests along the way.

They knew each other through the online course meetings for the spring quarter, reading the modern standards in California water management thought. Until the 30th of June, they travelled the length of the state, peering into the infrastructure that shapes all life in CA.

A mantra of questions yielded a mantra of responses

As they toured and talked with today’s water managers, the water academy students asked three important questions:

  1. What keeps you up at night?
  2. What gives you hope?
  3. What is one thing every Californian should know about their water?

They visited the repairs of Oroville Dam, the height and strength of Shasta Dam, and the Nigiri project—where people, rice and fish mutually benefit from the flooding of the Yolo Bypass and non-flooding of Sacramento. Many were struck by ecological farming practices in the Central Valley, and the debate on GMOs, the ever-perplexing Delta, and exchange contractors at San Luis Reservoir. They survived record-breaking heat in the southern San Joaquin Valley, seeking creative groundwater management at Semitropic before a visit to a minor league baseball game (where a wayward kitten was cared for).

East of Bakersfield they saw the parallel pipeline south: Mono to Crowley to Owens. Bishop Paiute Harry Williams spoke about clean air, and Owens Valley Paiute Alan Bacock left lasting impressions with the Los Angelinos and southern Californian students. This is where their water comes from.

Dave Herbst showed them the salty invertebrates, brine shrimp, of Mono Lake and described a UC Davis venture to protect it. To cap the journey off, they ended with two days understanding river recreation and formation.

The overwhelming response from students and academy speakers is: Know where your water comes from.

To know about water, you need to get in the water

Before closing the loop to Davis, the Academy traced one of the state’s largest Sierra Nevada rivers. They spent two nights at Camp Lotus, a rafter’s haven and launch east of Sacramento off of Highway 50. Canada Geese and goslings, the moon, and ever-running sprinklers were the only things to keep them awake.

Students picked each other up by their life vests to ensure they were tight enough and thumped themselves on the helmet to signal for “I’m ok.” Guided by UC Davis Outdoor Recreation Center, we were handed long yellow paddles and packed onto buoyant blue rafts. On command of the backseat guide, we practiced the different strokes based on the front left paddler. Top to bottom, left to right, we read each other in the boat.

We learned to read the “V” of flow in the river, spotting holes and drops.

Trained by the best, Jordy Magrid, a tan, kayak racer, and former Assistant Director of Outdoor Adventures, UC Davis Campus Recreation, describes steering the 14-foot paddle raft as “driving a school bus on ice.” On my raft, the four women in science and engineering laugh in anticipation as we approach the rapids. The two in the front are doused with freezing snowmelt again and again, smiling. On the flat water, they begin singing Disney Pocahontas songs, like “just around the riverbend,” but forget the words and switch to less apropos songs. Magrid commands a “forward” row when the singing gets too much. The stuents turn to discussing Native American pronunciation, geology, and snowmelt sensors.

Lecturing among the rafts, Viers, the co-director of UC water, wears a turquoise helmet and addles up in an inflatable kayak, also known as a “ducky,” pointing out the high water line of this year’s immense releases, ten vertical feet above us on the shores. 

We pull off to sand bars for lunch breaks and shoreline stories. Prof. Sarah Yarnell employed a Socratic method in exploring the how eco-geo-morphology of the rivers of California is dependent upon sediment. With a dam at the top and a dam at the bottom, there’s little earth to get pushed around and shaped by the yearly mood of the river. What sediment is available behind the dams becomes a noxious parfait, layers of sand and the legacy gold mining: mercury.

Because of Yarnell’s lecture, my group back in the raft started paying attention to the native trees. Just south of here, Ponderosa pines are dying, but here they are largely verdant. Cottonwoods tell the age of the past flows, a time when fluffy white seeds could take root. There are few young trees to create the cooling edge of the river habitat.

At one point, just outside of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was famously discovered, a guide jumped from his boat to point out the brown, slimy didymo coating every rock and crevice. Students passed the aptly named “rock snot” around. A diatom new to the rivers, didymo has changed the ecosystem by simplifying the food web and decreasing the available nutrition.

After a lively paddle through rapids named “Meatgrinder” and “Recovery Room,” the students clamber to the back of the boats and rope up a series of rafts for a tow across the slackwater. Three boats loop onto a single jetski.

Like most rivers in the state, excepting the Cosumnes, the American River ends in a reservoir. Sediment drops out. The temperature turns from chilly to bathtub, stocked with bass and blue gill. The massive Folsom reservoir imprisons 950,000 acre feet of water until it is divided and dispersed. Just above the prison Johnny Cash made famous, as the song goes, “time keeps dragging on.”

Sunburnt with blisters in the center of their palms, the students huck the boats up a ramp and gleefully squeeze and roll air out of the big blue balloons.

We return to Camp Lotus for a final evening of reverie and reflection. Howling with laughter into the wildness of the riverside, we practice an ancient “scientific” tradition: teasing the existing wisdom, to test and to ridicule what we already know. A practice older than this river, humans settle around the fire pit, and tell stories. Other students take the comedy route, and the laughter roars like flames towards the rising moon.

The next day, we pack the vans and leave the river, follow it down to the Folsom reservoir and the myriad pipes the river serves, back to UC Davis.

In an old riverbed, I see the mounds of dredged rubble heaped by high flows, and the persistent mark of water, old cottonwoods with big white trunks. In the basin, energy still flowed black and blue. Solar panels installed in the former river bed. A Swainson’s Hawk, an F-18. A new reality for the embedded systems California water builds.

Though the funding that supports water research and education is often in flux, and the investments in the state infrastructure seem less than ready to adapt to a changing climate, these ten water leaders have made the journey to know their water from a whole-system perspective.