Eric Larsen

Position Title
Researcher Emeritus

  • Landscape Architecture + Environmental Design
119 Hunt Hall


My work focuses on how rivers form in nature. What I do is vital to understanding rivers, has far-reaching impacts on a range of natural resources, and excites me. I use my work to guide others – particularly decision makers – to help them make informed planning choices. As a “Research Geomorphologist” in the Landscape Architecture Program, I have developed a gifted team, representing many disciplines, which influences river management and restoration throughout the West. I also reach out beyond the university, representing UC Davis and the Landscape Architecture Program to the general public, to help them understand river processes and how to manage them in the public interest. After decades of practice, I am now sought out to help “communicate complex scientific ideas to the public in ways that they can easily understand.

Water, and how it flows, impacts every community on the planet. Understanding the dynamics of flowing water, and how to predict it, is absolutely vital. Fostering that understanding is not only a public service, it is essential in a world facing massive changes to its climate and natural resources. I use my expertise in rivers to create tools, team with others, and influence decision makers to plan for these changes in a thoughtful and deliberate way. It continues to be a rewarding experience.

Sacramento River: Lifeblood of California, a film by Eric Larsen and Chris Harvey (15 minutes)

Meet Eric Larsen (.MP3 audio file)

About Cache Creek (Audio from article)

Reflections On Luna Leopold

Peer-reviewed journal articles

Curriculum Vitae

Limited Distribution



Ph.D. Civil Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 1995. Major: Water Resources Engineering.

M.S.  Civil Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.

B.A.  Engineering and Applied Physics, Harvard University, 1969. Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Current Position

Dr. Larsen is a Research Scientist Emeritus, Human Ecology Department, UC Davis, who has been involved in research and publication at UC Davis for over 20 years, and has held positions in the Departments of Civil Engineering, Geology, and Human Ecology.


Innovation in Research/Meritorious Publications

Dr. Larsen’s research on river meander migration dynamics is exemplary within the field of geomorphology. He is one of the few experts in California on managing natural river processes in the face of anthropogenic pressures and demands in large floodplain systems, such as the Sacramento River. A recent anonymous extramural reviewer of his work stated “Dr. Larsen is undoubtedly one of the most respected experts on large river mechanics globally.”


Dr. Larsen has published over 80 journal articles, limited distribution reports, book chapters, and books. One of Dr. Larsen’s major distinctions is being a key author of the 2017 book, Floodplains: Processes, Ecosystems and Services in Temperate Regions, published by UC Press. Dr. Larsen was lead author on all of the chapters dealing with geomorphology and hydrology. In addition, he was instrumental in conceptualizing, writing, and editing the other book chapters. Prof. Klement Tockner, Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology, noted that this book “… crosses disciplines and therefore helps training new generations of scientists and practitioners … is written for a broader audience, and will be perceived well beyond academia. … the most comprehensive book so far on …riverine floodplains … [an] outstanding work.”


Much of Dr. Larsen’s collaborative work, devoted to river management from the geomorphological and ecological perspectives, seeks a balance between necessary human intervention and requirements for maintaining a riverine habitat. Dr. Larsen’s paper in Landscape and Urban Planning (2014) proposed a positive river management for flood control and conservation of river environments from this ecological perspective. Dr. Larsen’s articles have appeared in seminal journals such as Environmental Management, Landscape Research, Landscape and Urban Planning, PLOS ONE, Geomorphology, and River Research and Applications. His publications include a book chapter in Ecology and Conservation of the San Pedro River (2009) on the effects of climate change on the development of riparian ecosystems, two articles in Landscape & Urban Planning -- one on landscape planning and ecology (2007) and the other river hydrology (2014), and lastly two extensive reports to the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. The first of these was a 59-page examination (2012) of river channel dynamics on the Sacramento River and the second a 78-page review (2010) of management of riparian ecosystem dynamics.


Dr. Larsen’s contributions to the field of large-scale planning related to rivers have been recognized for their excellence by his peers. He was named the Distinguished Geomorphology and Society Lecturer by the Geomorphology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers (2016). The list of previous recipients reveals a distinguished group of senior academics. Dr. Larsen’s inclusion among them is probably the clearest measure of the impact his research has had on the field and the esteem with which he is held internationally by his peers. In 2017, Dr. Larsen was invited to give the Geography Department Colloquia lecture at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota. In 2018 he was invited to organize and participate in an international consortium of river scientists, presenting river management strategies for the International Rivers Interface Cooperative (i-RIC), which he convened in Sacramento.


Societal Impact

Dr. Larsen has endeavored to apply his research in multiple ways, including involvement as a technical advisor for local communities, authorship of technical reports for various resource agencies, and outreach to state and federal agencies working throughout California, and the West. The contribution of his work to the greater scientific community, and to California water management in particular, should not be underestimated. Far too often, the ‘application of research’ is limited to publications in ‘applied’ journals, thus completely missing the key objective of working to apply research findings in a manner that can directly address real-world problems. Dr. Larsen has, and continues to, conduct applied research in the truest sense of the term. As one anonymous extramural reviewer noted, “His work is extremely relevant, and is actually used by managers and practitioners; more so than the vast majority of publications in fluvial geomorphology.”


Dr. Larsen has used his expertise to help solve challenges in river environments that local residents have been facing by serving on many local stewardship committees. For example, he is a Technical Advisor to the Winters Putah Creek Committee and the Solano County Water Agency; he was appointed as the Chair of the Cache Creek Technical Advisory Committee under Yolo County Department of Parks and Resources; and he is the Chair of the geomorphology sub-group for the Lower Putah Creek Restoration Planning Science Review Team. He was also appointed on a committee by the Director of Flood Control for the California Department of Water Resources. Related to this appointment, Dr. Larsen’s research findings were included in the conservation planning section of the 2017 California State Legislative Plan. 


Significant Extramural Funding

Dr. Larsen has continued to fund his research for 23 years. As a research scientist at UC Davis, he has successfully secured more than $2,000,000 external funds to support not only himself, but also graduate students under his supervision. His most recent awards include a $1,030,000 grant with the California Department of Water Resources to develop open source public software essential to planning on all large scale rivers, an award with The National Park Service in Yosemite Valley to support critical planning of river restoration in the middle of Yosemite Valley, and an award with the Solano County Water Agency to provide science oversite and public outreach to the restoration planning of Putah Creek.


He has also been funded by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and numerous other state, federal, and private organizations for critical planning work. With this financial support, Dr. Larsen has been heavily involved in a variety of research and outreach activities including, but not limited to, ecological conservation and flow regime control, development of riverine ecosystem tools and models, and transferring science-based knowledge of meandering processes to local communities in California. One project was to create a river-flow design tool (SacEFT) for maintaining ecological diversity in the Sacramento River system. On an international scale, Dr. Larsen is part of the International Rivers Interface Cooperative where he has developed open source software for modeling meandering rivers.


Dr. Larsen’s research has significantly advanced our scientific understanding of river systems and how to manage them more effectively. Perhaps more importantly, he is helping policy makers, resource managers and communities understand them better so that rivers have a constituency for the kind of stewardship necessary in a rapidly changing world.