Dorothy’s Class

A water policy class at UCLA aims to inspire the next generation of Dorothy Greens.

Los Angeles Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels and I have just finished teaching a class in leadership in water management at the UCLA Institute of the Environment. The class resulted from a generous gift by the Annenberg Foundation to UCLA to honor the memory of Heal the Bay’s founding president, Dorothy Green.

I can’t think of a better way to honor Dorothy’s legacy than teaching a class designed to educate and inspire the next generation of environmental activists and professionals. Thanks to the Annenberg Foundation, the class will be taught in the UCLA Institute of the Environment for the next four years.

Paula and I took a pretty unconventional approach to the class. Some 55 students, many majoring in environmental science, hung in there while we lectured on water quality, water supply and even the public trust doctrine.

Because the class included a major leadership component, we brought in speakers from environmental groups, cities, EPA, water districts, and state agencies. The speaker list was truly an all-star team of water leaders: Warner Chabot, Felicia Marcus, Steve Fleischli, Rich Nagle, Fran Spivy Weber, Kapua Sproat, Brian Thomas, Jovita Pajarillo, and more.

UCLA professors Glen MacDonald (the Institute of the Environment’s executive director) and Stephanie Pincetl spoke on climate change impacts on water scarcity and water sustainability issues.  Heck, I even wrangled my wife Lisette (an environmental engineer in Santa Monica) to speak on groundwater regulation and remediation.

Thanks to TA and urban planning doctoral student John Scott Raillton, we also brought in Jim Newton, the editor of the L.A. Times Opinion section, to provide adviceon how to write a decent op-ed —  an assignment for everyone in the class.

We also had the students give three-minute testimony on a number of topics, and about a dozen of them suffered a common fate that I’ve experienced numerous times: the unforgiving wrath of the buzzer when your three minutes are up.

The field trips marked a definite class highlight. The students spent a day visiting Hyperion (former public works city attorney Chris Westhoff led the tour), the West Basin Water Recycling plant (yes – they drank recycled water) and the Playa Vista stormwater treatment marsh, and another day taking the trek to Owens Lake and the Owens Valley.

Paula arranged the day, replete with speakers from DWP, the local community, Farmlab, and Geoffrey McWilkin, the director of the Mono Lake committee. By the end of the day, every student understood the scope and scale of Mulholland’s engineering marvel and ecological disaster.  We even made them watch “Chinatown” on the bus!  

Paula and I were truly the odd couple as team teachers. We often debated over whether the class was too technical (her sentiment) or not technical enough (guess who?).  After all, to a scientist, the regulatory arena is considered policy, and to most attorneys, a Total Maximum Daily Load is pure science.

Somehow, we held it together for the entire class, with Paula providing the heart and leadership lessons and me trying to jam in as much water quality content as humanly possible in a quarter. 

Overall, the class succeeded at many levels.  Close friend and  institute director Madelyn Glickfeld had to coerce me in to lecturing, but  I soon realized how much I missed teaching. It had been about a dozen years since I last taught at UCLA, and the class made me realize how much I enjoy blathering on about water.

Paula, John and I did a pretty good job of exposing the students to a wide variety of water quality and water supply issues. We introduced them to a diverse array of leaders that use different approaches to achieve success.

College students today are just less inclined to engage in long discussions and debates in class, but I’m certain that nearly all of the students learned a few things that will make them far more effective environmental professionals or activists.

Like the Gulf oil spill, the true impact of the class won’t be seen for years. Did we inspire the next Dorothy Green? Only time will tell.

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