William R. “Bill” Gianelli, 101, a former director of California’s Dept. of Water Resources who executed a multi-billion-dollar program in the 1960s and 70s to bulid a then-unprecedented state water and power storage and delivery system, died March 30 in Monterey, Calif. of natural causes, says an online obituary.

He also led the U.S. Army’s civil works program under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, making key policy changes affecting public and private sector projects and water infrastructure policy.

With Gianelli running its new water resources agency, California launched the $2.5-billion, two-phase State Water Project—the largest non-federal water conservation and conveyance system ever built, which was cited by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2001 as one of the greatest American engineering achievements of the 20th century.

California Gov. Ronald Reagan tapped Gianelli, who had previously worked at the agency and predecessors, for the top role. 

Tapped by Reagan—Twice

The University of Cailfornia-Berkeley civil engineering graduate hinted in a 1986 Corps of Engineers retrospective interview that Reagan was not a micro-manager and aided the agency in pushing state legislators for more money for a project that Gianeilli said "was in great financial trouble at the time because there were inadequate funds provided to complete it." 

Gianelli also pointed to support from Reagan "when I was criticized by people around the state on the job being done."

But a 2017 article in the Sacramento Bee pointed to project shortfalls in delivering a promised economic boom to Butte County, Calif. after it gave up 40,000 acres of taxable land to build the Oroville Dam, part of the huge water project. At Oroville's dedication in 1968, Gianelli said it was set “to become one of the major, if not the major, recreation attractions in the state of California.”

Reagan again tapped Gianelli for his administration after becoming U.S. president in the early 1980s, naming him assistant U.S. Army secretary for civil works and civilian head of the Corps of Engineers.

Gianelli had prior experience with the agency during World War II service building defenses after the Pearl Harbor attack and later in the Pacific Theatre. He rose to the rank of major.

According to the Corps retrospective, Gianelli praised the agency's construction capabilities but criticized its project planning processes as cumbersome and costly.

Eye for Detail

Gianelli cited major reforms he accomplished in the Army role, including changes that "cut project permit processing time in half," and a push to secure non-federal funding for more Corps projects.

He admitted in the Corps retrospective interview that his engineer's eye for detail "might have added to the discomfort of the Corps with my being in this job." Gianelli touted not being "a politician" in his career, but he had enough political instinct to be frustrated with influence exerted by higher ranking Interior Dept. officials in inter-agency dealings with the Corps, according to his interview answers.

“It’s a great tribute to Bill that so much of his vision to reform and improve our nation’s water project funding became law,” says Robert Dawson, a consultant and Gianelli’s successor in the Army role. "Many of his ideas on cost savings and efficiency were included in the 1986 Water Resources Development Act, which was a landmark law."

Gianelli also chaired the Panama Canal Commission during its controversial transition to Panamanian control and later was a California-based private consultant in water resources.


Among numerous accolades, Gianelli was a contender in 1973 for ENR's top industry honor, now called the Award of Excellence, and was awarded the prestigious Hoover Medal in 1988 “for outstanding civic contributions, as civil servant and private consultant, including the development of water resources and enlightened stewardship of public properties to the benefit of the citizens of the United States.”

A particular Gianelli legacy is the Water Education Foundation, a non-profit water-sector education and advocacy group he co-founded and led as president. With his personal donation, it launched a year-long annual leadership training program for water sector professionals in 1997, now named for him, that has had about 400 graduates.

Donations to the program in Gianelli's memory can be made here.