IN MEMORIAM: William R. Gianelli
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: Former California Department of Water Resources Director Was Foundation’s Second President, Namesake of Water Leaders Program
William R. Gianelli, the Water Education Foundation’s second president and a leading figure in California water during construction of the State Water Project, died March 30, 2020, in Monterey County. He was 101.
Mr. Gianelli was president of the Foundation from 1985-1989 and made a major financial donation that helped the Foundation create an educational program for young professionals from diverse backgrounds, which was named the William R. “Bill” Gianelli Water Leaders Class in his honor. The year-long program began in 1997 and now includes more than 400 graduates.
Foundation President Mike Chrisman recalled how his father, Ira “Jack” Chrisman — the Foundation’s first president — and Mr. Gianelli became close friends. Both men were working on water issues in the 1950s — Jack Chrisman was advocating for upstream dams after his Visalia home was flooded and Mr. Gianelli was working for the newly created Department of Water Resources (DWR) as it was planning what became the State Water Project.
Jack Chrisman later became chair of the California Water Commission, first appointed by Gov. Pat Brown in 1960, and Mr. Gianelli became director of DWR in 1967.
Both men saw the importance of “educating folks about the need for water and the need for water development in California,” Mike Chrisman said. The Association of California Water Agencies had started the Western Water Education Foundation. It became an independent nonprofit in 1977 and later changed its name to Water Education Foundation. Jack Chrisman and Mr. Gianelli raised money for the nonprofit and hired Rita Schmidt Sudman, who became the Foundation’s long-time executive director. The Foundation, Mike Chrisman said, “was a labor of love for both of them. They made it happen.”
Sudman, who was the Foundation’s executive director from 1979 to 2014, said Mr. Gianelli had strong opinions on water development in California. But he also believed coverage of water news should be nonpartisan, she said, and that helped set the stage for how the Foundation approached water news through its Western Water magazine.
“He understood the value of a Foundation that covered news in an impartial, unbiased approach,” she said, “even when it stuck a little bit in his craw.”
Ron Robie, who serves as an associate justice with the state’s Third District Court of Appeal, served as DWR director from 1975 to 1983. He called Gianelli “an engineer’s kind of engineer” who helped Robie as the first administration of Gov. Jerry Brown put together its plans for what became known as the Peripheral Canal proposal.
Gianelli’s financial commitment to the Water Education Foundation in support of the Water Leaders program reflected his interest in educating the next generation about water issues, Robie said.
“He had a real interest in getting people involved in the water business and getting them off on the right foot,” he said. “That was one of his greatest contributions.”
Born and raised in Stockton, Mr. Gianelli recalled in a 1992 Foundation interview the farm families of his teenage friends struggling with seawater intrusion in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during years of drought in the 1930s. He also remembered deadly floods that occurred in the Central Valley before dams and water storage projects were in place to hold back the storm flows.
Mr. Gianelli graduated with a civil engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and soon after was serving in the Pacific Theater of World War II with the Army Corps of Engineers, building airfields, water supply facilities and other projects.
After the war, he joined civil service in California, first in the State Engineer’s office and later in the DWR. He worked under Govs. Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Edmund G. “Pat” Brown during all phases of the California State Water Project, from design and planning to construction. From the get-go, Mr. Gianelli was a strong proponent of the project and its promised water deliveries.
He left state service for the private sector in 1960, launching what is today’s MBK Engineers. In 1967, he returned to DWR when Gov. Ronald Reagan asked him to become director.
He stepped down as DWR’s director in 1973 to work in the private sector as a consultant handling water supply and water rights issues. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan tapped him to become assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. That put him in charge of the civil works program of the Army Corps of Engineers, overseeing water resource development activities. He held the post until 1984.
A longtime consulting civil engineer, Mr. Gianelli served on the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District Board of Directors, including as its chair. In honor of his work on the State Water Project, the pumping generating plant at the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos was renamed the William R. Gianelli Powerplant.
The family asks that contributions in Mr. Gianelli’s memory be made to the William R. “Bill” Gianelli Water Leaders Class, c/o Water Education Foundation, 1401 21st Street, Suite 200, Sacramento, CA 95811. You can also donate online here.
Reach Douglas E. Beeman: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @dbeeman
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