March 20th, 2014

The Power of Sitting in Circle

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NOTE: This blog post is cross-posted from the Groupaya blog, found here.

One early January morning two years ago, Jeff Conklin, Eugene Eric Kim, and I met at the Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Fairfield and drove on to Sacramento together. We went to talk with longtime stakeholders in the California Delta about a different way of thinking about the wickedly difficult problems of water and the Delta.

Last week was our penultimate meeting of the second phase of the project that resulted from that Sacramento trip: the Delta Dialogues. Over the past two years, the stakeholders have made amazing progress during monthly, daylong sessions and outside gatherings and phone calls. But it hasn’t been easy: I’ve walked into only two of those meetings feeling completely confident we would have a good session; during the other meetings, I’ve had to rely on hope and prayers that they would go well.

What was the difference between the two meetings and others?

The two meetings in which I felt confident were quite structured, with breakout groups that reported out their findings and conversations. The other meetings were not so structured. Yes, we have entered those sessions with clear goals and clear questions, but the process has mostly been one of sitting in circle in dialogue.

In other words, it has been a messy, unpredictable, emergent process. Campbell Ingram, the director and our client, has been remarkably comfortable and patient with the uncertainty and uncontrollability of the process. If he didn’t have the stomach for it, there is no way we could have come this far.

So how far have we come?

Of all of our dialogues, Friday was the one about which I was most happy. Why? More Delta Dialogues participants than ever before went beyond the predictable words that position their particular stakeholder group and instead indicated they wanted to find solutions that work for the whole water question, and for all stakeholders. That these comments and openness came at a time of drought and discord, when stakeholders were feeling how hard the Delta system is to change, was all the more remarkable.

The stakeholders weren’t putting their heads in the sand. One stakeholder declared that nothing could ever change because of century-old water rights. He had a point, of course; senior water rights seem inviolable, even holding up under conditions of drought.

But the response to that comment was surprising, and demonstrated the progress of the process. A farmer said, “Well, I’m one of those senior water rights holders… But nobody wins; nobody’s gonna comes out of this thing if we all sit back and say, ‘My position is sacrosanct and yours is impossible!’”

Those were world-changing words.

IMG_9561-300x200And we heard them again and again. An environmentalist acknowledged to a farmer that we need to find ways to ensure conservation lands serve both farmers and species. A water exporter, who has contributed to a $200 million effort to develop a plan for water conveyance, suggested that perhaps we need to erase the plan and start over.

As I reflected on the day, I was reminded of another dialogue circle I have participated in — my women’s circle – three times a year for over 15 years. When I sit in circle with them in our homes, I get to be in a conversation that is unlike the other conversations in my life. We listen deeply, we challenge one another’s thinking, and there is no goal beyond being together. And yet, we change. And we are different in two ways: We see the world differently, and we make a difference in a new way.

Over the years, I have watched this group of women lead more courageous lives. They’ve stepped off safe corporate paths, leaving the stability and security they provide, to follow their passions, even when it has led to less predictable ways of earning a living.

I believe that this sort of work — sitting in circle, deepening relationships with one another and supporting one another in thinking in more nuanced ways — gives individuals the courage to lead more visionary lives.

And yet, it can be hard to really understand the deep value of sitting in circle without experiencing it firsthand. We haven’t been able to get funding for a Phase III of the Delta Dialogues – it is hard to justify and explain the work that goes into preparing for each Delta Dialogues meeting. And yet for our participants, the value is clear. Despite super busy schedules and other places where they are wanted and needed, our participants keep coming back.

I wonder if they keep coming back for the same reasons why I keep coming back to my women’s circle. I have grown to love the women in the circle like family. They say things that used to drive me crazy, and now I simply feel fondness as I watch them do their thing, the way they do their thing.

I have often described my time in our circle as a “remembering” of myself. As we step back from the busyness of our daily lives, I remember who I am and what I really care about. I always leave renewed and inspired to live from my best self.

The Delta Dialogues participants, some of whom have sued and fought each other for years, have grown comfortable with each other. The meetings are full of laughter. They have a deeper understanding of each other, not only in terms of positioning on water issues but also in personal terms.

If Delta Dialogues participants go out into the world and are more visionary, more holistic in their thinking, more compassionate about other stakeholder groups, and more courageous in speaking up, that is a huge accomplishment. It’s not collective action, which is more tangible and exciting. But it is profound. It is individuals, supported and challenged by a circle, changing the world.

That’s the power of the Delta Dialogues. That’s the power of sitting in circle.


March 17th, 2014

Will the Delta Dialogues Send a Message?

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The Delta Dialogues entered a period of change with its February gathering, as the facilitation team departed and participants summed up their work and accomplishments in preparation for writing a letter to state leaders and the public.Map Button

The change in the Delta Dialogues was apparent from the first minute of the February gathering, at Conaway Ranch in Woodland. Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy stood at the front of the room, instead of facilitators Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin, who sat to either side. campbellThis would be the last meeting for the facilitators, because the funding to support their work has expired. The dialogues, Ingram explained, would continue along under the direction of the participants themselves.
“We are in transition,” Ingram said.

That introduction set up a daylong meeting during which the participants, representing a diverse group of stakeholders, took stock of the dialogues’ work so far, discussed how to tell the public about that work, and proposed questions to carry the Dialogues into the future.

“I think this is a valuable process and I hope it continues,” said Delta landowner Tom Zuckerman. “Personally why I think it’s valuable is that it does include Delta voices and most of the other conversations that are going on do not.”

“What the Delta Dialogues has gone through in the last year and a half that’s very important in my mind is just proving that we can talk to each other in a civil manner,” said Leo Winternitz, who recently retired from the Nature Conservancy.

houseAfter Ingram facilitated the first hour of the Dialogues – a preview of what he said would be three more meetings in the months to come — he turned the floor back over to Cobble. She then led an exercise in which participants used post-it notes to answer seven questions arrayed on easels around the room.
Those questions – and those post-it note/answers – were designed to assess the extent to which participants, after two years of meetings, had made progress and found common ground. The questions and answers, participants said, were to inform a letter from Dialogues participants that would be drafted in March and sent to state leaders and the public.

At the beginning of the second phase of the Dialogues last spring, participants had set the goal of communicating the work of the Dialogues to the public, with the goal of influencing public knowledge and ongoing policymaking. But there has been no official communication between the Dialogues and the public. A letter – which the participants said would show how the participants had built trust and communicated well, and exported what they learned and agreed upon as a group – would fill that void.

participantsAs they discussed the letter, discussion focused on the fourth of seven questions: Where has common ground been found among the participants?

The answer involved the value of a process like the Dialogues, that includes diverse stakeholders, including those excluded from other processes, and that has ground rules designed to encourage listening, thinking, and conversations that produced deeper, shared understanding.

The common ground included broad agreement that questions still need to be considered around the possibility of including hybrid conveyance with an intake in the Western Delta. The interest in the Western Delta was related to the shared understanding that there is a need for physical assurances in the Delta, in part because the trust of stakeholders – from Delta residents to water contractors – had been broken in the past when promised projects and benefits failed to materialize.

shared understandingOther points on which participants had found common ground, by their own account: the need for the improvement of the Delta ecosystem, the risks of silver bullet and “mega” solutions; that compromise and collaboration are needed; and that trying to envision a future Delta could be the path to more common ground.

It wasn’t clear if the letter would be signed or exactly what form it would take. (Your storyteller was asked to help draft it). Steve Chappell of Suisun Resource Conservation worried aloud that a letter like this could pose risks for participants representing state agencies and perhaps other participants as well. “We have to remember the political risk for not advocating for your group in the letter,” he said.

stickiesModerator Kristin Cobble, Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, and Paul Helliker of DWR also had an exchange over whether the letter should include calls for more transparency. Helliker said that he didn’t understand the objection to BDCP’s transparency – given all the many different versions of the BDCP documents that have been publicly released and the hundreds of public meetings held throughout the Delta and elsewhere. Piepho countered that the mass of material was hard to navigate, and Cobble pointedly said in response that transparency had to be married with participation by stakeholders.

Assessments of the process were positive, though facilitator Conklin, in his concluding remarks, criticized himself for three “failures”. 1. The fact that the work done in the dialogues had not gotten out and noticed in the legislature and to the public. 2. The lack of continuity in the group, as participants came and went through Phase 2, and the resulting difficulties with continuity. 3. The inability to get the most of dialogue mapping process that mapped the conversations throughout the meetings.

birdsAttendance was an issue for the February meeting. There were no Delta farmers or exporters, in part because some were called away to an emergency meeting on the drought.

The participants also made a list of topics and questions for more study as the Dialogues continue—questions that ranged from porous levees and the possibilities of a West Delta intake, to questions of overall water supply, to the management of groundwater. One line of questions involved how to reconfigure the BDCP to provide physical assurances to stakeholders, reduce the impact of conveyance on the North Delta, and provide sufficient flow for fish and people.


February 10th, 2014

Will the Drought Bring Us Together, Or Distract Us?

Category: January 2014 Meeting
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The bad news – and a little good news – from California’s drought dominated discussion between participants during the January meeting of the Delta Dialogues.

The participants, representing diverse stakeholders (state agencies, water agencies, the fishing industry, agriculture, environmental NGOs) and gathering at a waste water treatment plant in Elk Grove, seemed to agree that California needs more tools to make decisions during drought emergencies like the one declared in January. “We don’t have very good mechanisms for doing things on the fly,” said Carl Wilcox of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

CarlParticipants saw opportunity – but also peril – in using the drought as the basis for spurring work on long-term solutions in the Delta. “I see this as a big distraction from the long term,” said John Cain of American Rivers.

The January Delta Dialogues was the penultimate meeting for the facilitation team from Cognexus and Groupaya that has worked with the dialogues since its beginnings in early 2012. (Funding to pay the facilitators is set to run out after the February meeting). Beginning in March, dialogue participants and Delta Conservancy director Campbell Ingram will take charge of it. To that end, facilitator Kristin Cobble said she tried to give the meeting “more structure” as preparation for the stakeholders to assume full responsibility for running the meeting.

KristinCobble began by establishing a baseline of different participant points of view and looking for commonality. Her questions were: what is your biggest concern about the drought? And what should the Delta Dialogues and the entire state be doing to address it?

The specific concerns differed among the stakeholders. Environmentalists expressed worries that their work would be rolled back because of drought, and endangered species would be blamed for water shortages. Farmers expressed fear that interest groups would use the moment to advance their causes. State agency officials and water agencies expressed confusion and uncertainty—there just isn’t enough water right now to meet all the various regulatory obligations—with one participant asking, “Which standards do we violate?” And water agencies said that adjusting to a drought of these proportions will be difficult because so much has changed – in terms of population and cultivation – since the last such drought more than 35 years ago.

Les“We are so far out of the box,’ said Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District, “we don’t know how to grok it.”

The one saving grace, several participants said, is that the drought also has become a shared concern with the potential to bring interests together. “While we fight over water a lot, it’s crises that pull people together and will bring out the best in people,” said Peltier.

Added Cain: “You know you’re in a bad place when you have to count on Jason for uplifting news.”

Some participants suggested that the drought might create conditions for a broader water policy discussion, and near the meeting’s end they enthusiastically imagined having what they called a “Big Eraser” conversation. What constraints could be erased to improve the Delta and make the California water system work better?

Jim“How do we develop a shared responsibility of going forward together, in terms of how do we meaningfully deal with the uncertainty of our climate?” asked Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District late in the meeting.

Said Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy: “Everybody’s in the same boat of not knowing what to do; what’s next. For me, that’s valuable as the source of creative tension; you’re in a situation where you about ready to explore and explode into some really creative ideas.”

Throughout the meeting, participants discussed, in a variety of ways, how difficult it is to make a decision – any decision – in the Delta. Wilcox talked about the water rights system: “It’s a huge constraint on how we manage water in the state and where resources go.”

“How can we make decisions?” asked Peltier. “I am more convinced today we won’t be able to make a decision on BDCP, we –the government, water agencies. We won’t be able to make a decision in the time we are expecting. We will be out of resources, out of money, we can’t make that decision.”

Leo“Somebody has to make a decision… We have to have a better way of decision-making and building more confidence,” Fiedler said.

Tom Zuckerman, a Delta landowner, suggested that a “war room” be set up “where everybody who is involved can reach a decision. That’s what clearly needs to be done,” particularly given the complicated regulatory climate.

Zuckerman said that given all the difficulties, he’d like to “put 100 percent of my energies” into focusing on areas in which the stakeholders can agree – and then work to make decisions. He said he represented a third generation in the Delta that had been “arguing about everything” and was tired of it.

Nancy and Russell Near the meeting’s end, participants were asked by Cobble, the facilitator: “as a result of today’s conversation, ‘What do I wish my own stakeholder group understood better?’” Participants gave similar answers – that there wasn’t an appreciation of the complexity of the circumstances, and that stakeholders drew lines (no new storage for environmentalists, no North Delta conveyance for Delta farmers) without understanding that there are nuances and that such things could be workable in the right circumstances.

The question seemed to inspire conversations about having a “Big Eraser” dialogue that would put everything on the table.

When Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy questioned whether one response would be “the pre-1914 water rights holders coming and saying, ‘Put the eraser down!’” Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels replied: “Well, I’m one of those, Campbell, but nobody wins, nobody’s gonna come out of this thing, if we all sit back and say, ‘My position is sacrosanct and yours is impossible!’”


February 5th, 2014

Enough To Go Around?

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In the January Stakeholder Meeting, we switched gears and dove into an issue impacting all California water stakeholders: the current record breaking drought. We met at the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Elk Grove. Heartened by some of the very smart steps they’re taking to help with the drought, we were also reminded that these type of large scale solutions take a lot of time and money, and require a high degree of agreement to put in place.

Surprisingly, for such a high impact issue as the drought, there was a lot of agreement among the participants on several key points:

  • This is undoubtedly already a very bad drought, and there’s no telling how long will continue.
  • Demand has only grown since the last terrible drought in 1976-77, while at the same time, regulatory constraints on water flows have grown substantially, with more agencies and sometimes conflicting regulations.
  • The agencies in charge of responding to the drought are hamstrung by complex competing needs, a fear of litigation and reluctance to set precedent, making it very hard for agencies to “do the right thing” to address the problem. At this point, agencies face the question: “Which standards do we violate?”

While short term fixes for the drought are not obvious, participants agreed that – for the state to better deal with droughts in the long term – unified action needs to be taken across a range of areas, including:

  • Organizing water policy at a statewide level to maintain a reserve of water for especially dry years.
  • Implementing measures to increase supply and reduce demand, including the usual suspects: conservation, reuse, stormwater recycling, reducing groundwater overdraft, and making sustained behavioral changes to reduce consumption.
  • Improving conveyance (though, of course, exactly how this is done is very controversial!).
  • Constructing more storage (also much easier said than done).
  • Addressing confining water rights policies.
  • Improving the decision making process for developing and administering solutions.
  • Educating California citizens on the sometimes complex issues around managing water so that we can all help drive good water policy statewide.

In most other Stakeholder Meetings, participants have gamely defended a wide range of positions on any given topic. This meeting was notable in how the participants came together behind the many shared challenges posed by the drought. Hopefully we can bring this spirit of unified action to the many other issues being tackled by the Dialogues.

Over the next few days, watch for Joe Mathew’s blog post on this same January Stakeholder Meeting, with more quotes and narrative, as well as the dialogue maps from the meeting, which will help you quickly navigate the key issues and understand the thinking behind them.


November 25th, 2013

Getting Our Ducks in a Row

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Delta Dialogues participants, gathered at a hunting club on the Rindge Tract outside Stockton, spent their November session doing some hunting of their own, seeking deeper understanding of alternative conveyances and listing their own criteria for BDCP and other Delta plans.Map Button

It was the third straight Delta Dialogues meeting to involve detailed examination of “Multiple Intake Scenarios,” with the diverse group of stakeholders looking at possibilities that might include an intake on the Western Delta and alterations to the BDCP’s proposed intakes in the north of the Delta on the Sacramento River. Some participants also held a phone meeting Nov. 6 to examine aspects of a Western intake, including the impact on the Delta smelt.

The November session of the dialogues, at the Rindge Tract Partners hunting club of Delta landowner and Dialogues participant Tom Zuckerman, felt like an unpromising end and a promising beginning.

The unpromising end came first, with John Cain of American Rivers summing up the phone call and participants appearing to have deeper understanding of why a Western Delta intake would not be a viable alternative (although Zuckerman pointedly said he wasn’t giving up on the idea; a “porous” levee could work and a Western facility might not impact smelt if it’s operated during higher flows, he said).

The promising beginning started in the late morning, and continued into the afternoon – as the conversation switched from the particulars of conveyance alternatives to a conversation about the criteria for Delta plans. The switch was made when facilitators asked about the criteria that drove the BDCP – and what criteria should have governed any such plan and weren’t used.

While the conversation about conveyances hadn’t produced an alternative plan from the Dialogues participants (as some said they had hoped), that conversation seemed to have deepened understanding about what the criteria should be for any Delta plan. Participants listed a variety of criteria, often by listing criteria they didn’t see being met by BDCP: covering the goals of habitat restoration and water supply, limiting the risks that often result from mega-projects, limiting the impact of tunnels on the Delta, considering the Delta as a place with its own interests and needs, trying to find ways to create more water for the Delta’s various stakeholders, and creating greater clarity about terms and governance in the Delta.

The conversation was wide-ranging, and focused particularly on the need to contain risks, perhaps through physical barriers, to the Delta and its economy. Participants said that the alternative criteria they were listing could be brought to bear on BDCP and other Delta plans.

“I really appreciated how the criteria let us focus on what challenges the proposal has,” said Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy, the convener of the Dialogues. “It spotlights a path that might lead to a more acceptable project.”

In response to a conversation about how much agricultural land in the Delta might be lost under the BDCP proposal, participants discussed holding a follow-up meeting, perhaps by phone, before the next regularly scheduled Dialogues session in January. Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy said he thought such a session would be useful, in his view, because comments by North Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels about the loss of agriculture for habitat were overstated. “It will alleviate some fears and we’ll all come out with a better understanding,” said Winternitz.

Participants also said they could have a sub-group to look at another alternative conveyance, though not in the Western Delta. Instead, they might consider a reduced North Delta diversion in combination with conveyance through the Delta corridor.

Only two more sessions of the dialogues are currently scheduled – for January, and then either February or March – and funding beyond that is uncertain. Participants said they appreciated the Dialogues’ work so far – especially its record to create greater understanding and a record of the path to such understanding – and believe the process could do more, including advancing specific proposals and having more impact on the growing public debate over the BDCP and the Delta’s future.

The challenge for the Dialogues is how to get there.

“I think it’s a good process, but I don’t understand what the result is,” said Winternitz.

“I share Leo’s mystification about how can we take this good will, this willingness to understand… and convert it into something that is real,” said Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District.

Facilitator Kristin Cobble asked participants to be ready to “put on our King Solomon” hats in January and try to figure out “what’s fair for all of us to give and what’s fair for all of us to get.”

Participants said there were other conversations taking place in the Delta, perhaps too many. “I’d be happy to have twice as many meetings with half as many groups,” quipped Zuckerman. Participants also said they’d like to see more participation from government – particularly federal and state agency officials and local county supervisors who are part of the Dialogues, but did not attend November’s session.

Bruce Blodgett of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau said he was encouraged “that there are alternatives that people are willing to talk about. The more we talk the better it is. It’s the first time we talked about Delta solutions with Delta people.”


November 13th, 2013

Into the Matrix

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Taking what felt like a deep breath after tough recent meetings in Sacramento-area offices, the Delta Dialogues and its participants returned to the outdoors and to a discussion of alternatives to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan conveyance proposals during their October session.Map Button

The daylong gathering at Rush Ranch, in Suisun Marsh, was among the best-attended sessions of the dialogues, with representatives from every stakeholder in attendance. Jerry Meral, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, also attended and participated in the meetings.

“I’m happy to be in the marsh. It’s a lot closer to home, back in the natural world,” said Carl Wilcox of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife early in the meeting. Delta landowner Tom Zuckerman, noting the fall harvest and presence of ducks and geese in the Delta, said he felt optimism, and not just because the time of the year. “I sense the discussion is beginning to open up at long last,” he said, adding that in-Delta stakeholders are beginning to have their concerns heard in debates about the future of the Delta.

The conversation again centered on possible alternatives to the BDCP conveyance, especially the possibilities of multi-intake scenarios that could involve the Western Delta, and the discussion was often difficult, technical and frustrating. John Cain of American Rivers and Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District complained at different points in the day that time was being wasted.

To help things along, facilitator Kristin Cobble, who returned to the dialogues after missing the September session, handed out a picture of a rabbit disappearing down a hole to each participant, and instructed participants to wave the pictures above their heads if the conversation was “going down a rabbit hole.” The rabbits were employed only a handful of times.

The facilitation team also spent considerable time reviewing the rules and practices of the dialogues. In this year’s second phase of the dialogues, nearly half of the participants are new additions who did not participate in last year’s first phase, and facilitators and participants have said it’s important to “strengthen the container” – the metaphor they often use for the dialogues as a contained, safe space where difficult issues can be discussed and understandings reached.

Newer participants were asked to point to their favorite place on the Delta on a map, and in one exercise, all participants were asked to identify things the group had in common.

“We all want to protect the Delta,” was the first.
“We all go to a lot of meetings,” was the second.

After that container-building, the day broke down into four sections.

1. In the late morning, Gwen Buchholz offered a presentation and answered questions about the various alternatives to the conveyance alignments in the BDCP. She described a painstaking multi-year, EIR/EIS process (it took over a year to develop screening criteria, she said) that started in 2008 and is still ongoing. It did boil down many ideas to 15 conveyance alignment alternatives. Find a description of the process here, then an initial screening of alternatives here, and a secondary screening here.

She noted the complexity; it had taken her four hours, she said, to boil down the 200-page appendix explaining the process into a presentation. Despite all the things considered, participants asked about whether variations on some of the alternatives had been considered, or whether combinations of alternatives had been considered. The answer in some cases was no, with Buchholz noting that not every conceivable alternative could be studied and that she and colleagues in other agencies had relied heavily on public comments in the process. They had to answer questions they were asked, she said.

One takeaway from the presentation and conversation was that two tests were crucial to screening alternatives. If the fish agencies said that an alternative wouldn’t work for species, it didn’t have a chance. And if contractors said an alternative wouldn’t work economically, it wouldn’t have a chance either.

Several participants, including Meral, emphasized that the alternatives conversation was important and was continuing. If there’s something better that meets the variety of tests necessary for conveyance, it could be useful. Paul Helliker of state DWR said that viable alternatives could come up late in the process.

2. Following from this conversation, the conversation entered the matrix. Literally, facilitators in collaboration with Cain and Chris Knopp of the Delta Stewardship Council had created a matrix for evaluating and understanding three conveyance possibilities – status quo, the current BDCP proposal, and a multi-intake alternative – on a variety of criteria and questions. The matrix filled two large boards on either side of the screen upon which the conversation was being mapped.

But they only managed to fill in one column of squares on the big matrix. The conversation was detailed, but participants struggled to define terms and decide questions. Several complications were introduced into the process, involving the differences between wet and dry years, and the ability to draw more water in storms.

The conversation was detailed, and full of information, but also frustrating. “I think it’s been great,” said Peltier as they broke for a late lunch. “We are all well meaning and informed, and we can’t even agree on what the questions are.”

Forty minutes were allotted for lunch, but the group decided to go for a walk into the marsh, and it took more than an hour.

Upon their return, Cobble, the facilitator, relayed a conversation she’d had with Meral during lunch, and posed three questions he had raised:

1. What is the largest physical facility in Western Delta that In Delta stakeholders could support?
2. Can In Delta stakeholders live with any North Delta diversion at all?
3. Can the facility be permitted by the fisheries agencies, and would the water contractors be willing to finance it?

The two in-Delta interests — North Delta farmer Russell Van Loben Sels and Zuckerman – both said it was possible to conceive of plans and operations that could be supported, though it would not be easy and the details would be crucial. Van Loben Sels said it was important that any alternatives make as little change and have as little impact as possible. Zuckerman emphasized the importance of having a “firm linkage” between “new dry period yield” of water north of any diversion facility and the operation of such a facility.

Wilcox noted that Western Delta intake could hurt Delta smelt. Pressed on whether there was any chance that a Western Delta intake could pass muster given the presence of smelt and other fish and the velocity of water, he answered: “Very small. Less than 2 percent.”

That precipitated a conversation, including Wilcox, about how to find out more about the impact of a Western Delta diversion. That led in turn to conversation about arranging a meeting or phone call, involving some participants and non-participants, including federal fisheries agencies, to look at the Western option (including impact on fish, questions about where facilities can be located and their size) before the next Delta Dialogues session on Nov. 15.

In closing, facilitators asked two questions: what was most valuable about the day’s discussion? And what question do you most want answered or explored on Nov. 15? In response, members talked about various questions around alternatives, though participants suggested that they needed to come together on specific, simpler questions to drive more productive discussion.


October 9th, 2013

Are the Delta Dialogues Stuck?

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It looked and sounded that way at September’s gathering of the process that involves a diverse array of stakeholders from around the Delta. After a year and a half of sessions that participants had called productive, the September session left participants frustrated and questioning the process.Map Button

The daylong gathering at the Delta Conservancy included testy exchanges, early departures by a handful of stakeholders, side conversations while others were speaking, the failure of participants to stick to the agenda, and difficulties and miscommunications among the facilitation team.

For the first time in the 18-month-old process, one participant, declined to say anything during “check in” process that starts each meeting, a simple, often lighthearted exercise in which participants are asked to say a few words about how they’re feeling as the meeting begins.

The group spent much of the time debating what they wanted to talk about – water supply? Conveyance? Undoing constraints in the system? A sequenced approach to the BDCP? Management of water? A Western Delta diversion, perhaps with a permeable levee?

This tug of war over the agenda represented a reversal from the previous meeting in August, when the group seemed to have agreed to look at hybrid alternatives to the BDCP conveyance plans.

The battle over the agenda did in fact touch on many of these alternatives, but as they jumped between technical details and other subjects, the conversation came at an unusually rapid speed for a dialogues process that often is slowed so that the statements of participants can be mapped on a screen. Participants frequently interrupted each other. The resulting conversation was scattered, and facilitators struggled to map it.

By meeting’s end, participants seemed frustrated and beaten down. “I think we need to shake it up,” said Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District, suggesting a return to field trips into the Delta that were a staple of the process’ first phase in 2012.

“I’m a little discouraged,” said Dick Pool, representing the commercial and recreational fishing industries. “I thought we might make more progress.”

“Today’s discussion was a little frustrating,” added Russell van Loben Sels of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau.

But participants said they remain committed to the Dialogues, and wanted to continue to find ways to continue the Dialogues and examine alternatives to the current conveyance and BDCP plans – both to achieve shared understanding and perhaps suggest changes to existing plans.

“I think it’s in our interest to find a path through this,” said Chris Knopp, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council. I’d like for us to consider where we want to be, what we’d like to do to get there, how we will get there from here. Right now this is too free flowing for me.”

John Cain of American Rivers said that there weren’t alternative venues to bring forward changes. “This is a crazy endeavor,” he said of the Dialogues. “The alternative to not doing this is not good at all. Even though this was not as fruitful a day as I would have hoped, what are the alternatives?”

Facilitator Jeff Conklin told the group that, at the end of the August meeting (see “Forging Common Ground“), it appeared that the group had reached “a critical transition,” where there was enough trust to talk about the messy details of conveyance and alternatives. In September, he said, that conversation “happened, but it wasn’t full of the balloons and whistles that I thought might come of it… It was a drill down into the contested points of view.” At the end of the meeting, he noted that polarization had come out and thanked the group for its persistence.

One factor appeared to be the number of relatively new arrivals to the Dialogues among the participants. Seven of the 17 were either new or had not participated in last year’s Phase 1, when the group built trust and relationships with the goal of permitting difficult conversations.

At September’s gathering, much of the conversation consisted of longtime participants trying to slow down conversation and explain to newer participants how the dialogues worked. But the participants had little help from a facilitation team that was short lead facilitator Kristin Cobble; Cobble and Conklin had previously facilitated the meetings together, but the two had agreed to begin alternating, with one facilitating and the other skipping the meeting, in order to save money and permit Dialogues meetings to continue longer, into next year. (The Dialogues, through the conservancy, are seeking funding for more work and meetings in the future).

Carl Wilcox of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife stood out for striking a rare positive note at the end, saying that the conversation about an alternative diversion in the West Delta, in combination with a smaller North Delta diversion, had given him hope about the conversations.

“Certainly I will be talking to Randall and John and others about how that might work,” he said, saying that analysis could generate relevant information for BDCP. “I am somewhat encouraged,” he said.

The session prompted facilitators to do some deep self-examination, and scramble to re-examine the Dialogues and their plans. They said that, in the days after the September session, they would reach out to participants personally.

The Dialogues appeared headed toward some kind of shake up. But the nature of the shake-up was unclear.


September 4th, 2013

Forging Common Ground

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In their August gathering, Delta Dialogues grappled with how and whether they might be able to affect Delta management and planning processes, including the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the State Water Board.

Near the end of the intense, day long conversation that departed from the agenda and included only one brief break for lunch, the participants discussed the possibility of developing their own alternative proposal for conveyance that could better meet the needs of all Delta interests.Map Button

No decisions were made, but the conversation among the stakeholders — representing agriculture, the fish industry, environmental groups, state agencies, local governments, and water agencies — was more detailed than any so far in the two-phase process, which started in early 2012. “I am glad we are getting down to the nitty gritty,” said Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, near the meeting’s conclusion.

The meeting seemed to leave the dialogues, which were begun to forge shared understanding among stakeholders in the Delta, at a dramatic point, with the real possibility that participants might seek to come together to develop their own proposals for the Delta.

Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, noted that there is great uncertainty about the BDCP, and how and whether water contractors and state and federal agencies will support it. “They have spent $200 million and it is 7 years later,” said Winternitz, who then urged the dialogues group to get involved. “But if there is something else that can be proposed that significantly reduces their costs, and provides for most of the objectives they need to achieve, and provides for conservation, we should be brave and put something out there.”

Most of the morning was devoted to conversation about conveyance, with facilitator Kristin Cobble introducing participants to “the Ladder of Inference”, a model of the steps, or missteps, we often take when we think. When we have disagreements in conversations, she explained, it is often because we have previously selected the data we think is most important to pay attention to, made assumptions about that data, drawn conclusions from those assumptions, and taken actions that make us keep selecting our data too narrowly. She encouraged participants to “come down their ladders” by sharing and testing their data and assumptions.

The conversation was defined by van Loben Sels, the Delta farmer, and a detailed case he made for the virtues of using the Delta itself as means of conveying water, instead of constructing expensive tunnels around or under the Delta. “The facility to move water is already there — a/k/a the Delta,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be built, you don’t disrupt the whole region, all that disruption goes away, a lot less expensive, could be accomplished more quickly, and has much broader support.” He suggested engineering changes within the Delta could protect fish and habitat.

But he was challenged by other participants, who argued, in different ways, that through-Delta conveyance was essentially the broken status quo. Carl Wilcox of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife said: “The reason we are looking at changing the way water is conveyed is because the way it is done now doesn’t work.”

Randall Neudeck of the Metropolitan Water District said his agency would love to save billions on building conveyance, but experience has shown – and government agencies have made plain – that a through-Delta solution doesn’t work. John Cain of American Rivers, helped articulate a detailed list of all the problems with through-Delta conveyance – from fish protection to the stability of the Delta and its levees to the quality of water going through the Delta. Van Loben Sels countered that he and in-Delta interests share those goals, but believed that conveyance would simply add new problems without resolving the issues.

That exchange didn’t settle the question, but it did show that different participants had similar goals. And it represented a step forward for the dialogues; in previous sessions, in-Delta interests had been wary of discussing conveyance and the BDCP directly for fear of giving them too much legitimacy. But this direct conversation seemed to unleash even more detailed conversations later in the afternoon, including the possibility of the group developing its own proposal.

“I don’t think we are that far apart,” said Van Loben Sels. “It’s a matter of how we do it and how much.” He said that if a proposal were to be developed, “if we are going to take that step, we have to talk about what goes out of the delta in the form of exports and the form of outflow.”

Cain, of American Rivers, seemed to seize on that comment, by suggesting a hybrid proposal of conveyance. Cain suggested that such a proposal would need four elements, plus a governance structure. Those four were:

1. Specifics on how much water would come into the Delta. Cain noted that the BDCP has not tried to change that amount at all.

2. Specifics on how the water that comes into the Delta is allocated between outflow and exports. if outflow is maintained, water quality is maintained.

3. How such an allocation can be physically accomplished through conveyance. This could include physically separating water considered outflow and water that’s exported.

4. Understanding the short and long-term impacts of conveyance infrastructure and associated habitat restoration on Delta communities and land use.

Participants expressed interest in such a proposal, but no decision was made.

And the interest in going forward was tempered by skepticism in the room about whether the BDCP and other processes are too far along – and also too constrained – to be deeply influenced. But, despite wide views about the efficacy of alternatives, each of the stakeholders indicated there would be value in discussing alternatives.

Cain called the next six months “critical” and said there was an opportunity for the dialogues to influence BDCP and other Delta processes. Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy noted that California Department of Fish and Wildlife director Charlton Bonham had said at a recent state senate hearing that he wanted to find a way to engage in-Delta interests in the BDCP, especially around governance. Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho said she wanted to find a way for the in-Delta interests to influence plans.

“We are not against a project specifically,” she said. “We don’t like BDCP in its current size. We aren’t saying go away, we are saying the Delta needs help. We need to preserve and protect the Delta first.”

Such willingness to discuss change and alternatives was echoed among BDCP backers among the participants. Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District said, “I recognize that BDCP is not a solution to all the water problems in California. It is one piece of the entire puzzle.”

Dale Hoffman-Floerke of the state Department of Water Resources noted that the BDCP had announced changes in its conveyance plans – and that change should send a message that the state wants to be adaptable and responsive to concerns of residents people in the Delta. “We are not done tweaking there,” she said. “We continue to look for additional opportunities to reduce impacts; I expect additional changes will occur in the future. There is a lot we can do, will do.” (Hoffman-Floerke also announced that she would be retiring from the state; her replacement in the Delta Dialogues will be DWR deputy director Paul Helliker).

Delta farmers in the room expressed skepticism about those recent changes in conveyance proposals. “I think the governor still has tunnel vision,” said Bruce Blodgett. But they also emphasized that the status quo was not acceptable and that they were willing to participate in identifying alternative solutions to the various Delta issues, including conveyance.

The constraints and difficulties of the Delta issues were brought into relief by discussion among participants and by a lunchtime presentation the group received from Les Grober of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Grober explained that the board’s Bay-Delta Plan will change with or without BDCP, and that the board is studying multiple alternatives, depending on how and whether BDCP goes forward. He emphasized that the board’s Bay-Delta Plan will include flexibility and adaptive management. In answer to a question from San Joaquin County Supervisor Ken Vogel about how there could be trust since standards on southern Delta salinity are not currently being met, Grober said trust was essential.

“In the past the Bay-Delta Plan has anticipated construction of infrastructures that never got built. That is why the current Plan update will consider the standards needed both with and without infrastructure like the BDCP. There has to be more than one way of achieving the standards,” he said, adding, “There has to be some trust in the system regarding real time decisions being made and trust in the board. The Bay-Delta Plan should do better than lock us into one number that we have to stick with in light of new information and changing conditions.”

After conversation and questions for nearly two hours, Grober said he’d like to formally join the dialogues.


August 1st, 2013

To BDCP or Not to BDCP?

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The Delta Dialogues delved into the nitty-gritty of governance proposals in its July meeting, producing some of the most detailed discussion of the process – and a divide between participants over how they might move forward with their own governance proposals.

Participants described the six-hour meeting at the Delta Conservancy offices in West Sacramento as at once enlightening and exhausting. Fourteen stakeholders were present, representing a diverse array of Delta interests (though not agriculture; three regular participants had work and travel conflicts). Map Button Two participants – Northern California Water Association president David Guy and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Tom Philp – joined the Dialogues for the first time.

The conversation, while full of good humor, was so intense that the participants kept talking and declined to take breaks, even when prompted by facilitators. But participants said the Dialogues, as they progressed into greater detail, might also be running up against some of the same obstacles as previous efforts to bring together different Delta stakeholders.

“It was a really interesting discussion today… a lot of serious points touched on,” said Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy as he departed the room. “I’m just afraid that Delta Dialogues is ending up where a lot of Delta discussions end up — in the Sargasso Sea.”

What stood out from the conversation were three long exchanges. In the first, Carl Wilcox of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife answered a series of rapid-fire questions from participants about the BDCP’s proposed governance structure. Wilcox’s answers were so detailed and thoughtful that he won praise from the group – even though participants expressed little enthusiasm for the BDCP’s structure.

In the second, the participants discussed a strategy for the dialogues itself. In tackling governance, should the Delta Dialogues attempt to change and influence the BDCP? Or would it be better to look more broadly at governance, perhaps in the context of the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan?

Tom Zuckerman, a Delta landowner who is a leader among in-Delta interests, said over and over that in-Delta interests would oppose the BDCP, and that there was little virtue in trying to build governance on it as a model. John Cain of American Rivers was the room’s leading voice for engaging the BDCP; he argued that the BDCP was up in the air and that there is an opportunity to make a big impact on the governance plans right now.

“There’s a lot of room for rethinking governance,” Cain said. “There’s open lines for the idea of Delta representation in governance. I don’t think it’s too late. It’s actually at a crisis point, and it would be timely in the next couple months to insert something that has broad support.”

Other participants said that what was crucial was to pick the right level of governance and process. There were so many processes and discussions at so many levels. Ingram noted that given all the different contexts and levels, an intervention by the Dialogues on governance could be “both too late – and very timely.”

Late in the day, participants began to frame the choice narrowly: should they try to influence the BDCP or the Delta Plan?

Zuckerman said: “I feel more comfortable talking about the Delta Stewardship Council than the BDCP. I don’t see things…changing in BDCP. While there’s enough holes and gaps and spaces in the Delta Plan to talk about that on a more constructive basis.” Dick Pool of the commercial fishing industry agreed, saying that the BDCP was changing and too much of a moving target. “We could find the perfect solution and find out that the BDCP is totally different,” Pool said.

Cain replied: “If we don’t participate in the BDCP, we’re ceding it to the AEG and the governor.”

Even as the group debated throughout the day whether to deal directly with the BDCP, they discussed the BDCP – and Delta governance more broadly.

Zuckerman pressed the group to answer the same question: if the BDCP is supposed to protect the Delta, why shouldn’t the job of putting it in place be entrusted to an entity that represents all Delta interests, including in-Delta interests, like the Delta Protection Commission? The DPC’s Delta Plan, he said, has a broader view of the Delta’s problems and has elements that could repair the shortcomings of the BDCP.

Zuckerman acknowledged his question was intended in part as a provocation (the Delta Protection Commission opposes the BDCP), but his question served to focus the discussion on the inadequacies of the BDCP’s proposed governance structure – and to prompt participants to suggest alternatives. The conversation veered into the details of the Authorized Entity Group (AEG), the powerful board overseeing BDCP under the governance structure proposed in the plan’s Chapter 7; the companion Permit Oversight Group or POG that is a part of the structure, and the powerful Program Manager envisioned by the BDCP.

The wide-ranging discussion that ensued brought forth a mix of principles for Delta governance (in-Delta interests needed representation and some measure of “veto authority” to make corrections when plans don’t work out as promise). There were also a host of questions. Could you put an independent body to oversee the BDCP that would have the trust of the public? Isn’t putting the water contractors on the AEG akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse? Can the fact that the water contractors are footing the bill for the BDCP justify giving them more power? Why is the BDCP’s Stakeholder Council – the only body with in-Delta interests under the plan — so weak, with only the right to object and nothing more?

Several participants said that the AEG was an entity dominated by government agencies and the water contractors paying for the contract, and needed to be altered to include in-Delta interests. Would an ex-oficio member be progress? Could the five counties in the Delta be given representation – perhaps along with the Delta Protection Commission – on the AEG? The group also argued that the Stakeholder Council included in the BDCP governance would be too weak to provide a real check on AEG or the BDCP. Could that be beefed up?

Chris Knopp, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, suggested that governance needed to include accountability and adaptability – “the ability to change the decisionmaking body based on the decisions it makes.” For example, he said, if a decision affects Delta residents, then Delta residents should be part of that decision. He said the inclusion of water contractors in the AEG will raise suspicion among many members of the public who want to be assured that decisions made by the AEG will encompass a broad perspective and be unbiased.

Wilcox, while defending the BDCP, argued that cooperation and power for local counties and the people of Delta were essential for the BDCP to be able to work. “It’s not in the AEG’s interest to not pay attention to the Stakeholder Council,” he said. He later added: “Somehow we need to find a way for in-Delta stakeholder interests to be transmitted into the decisionmaking processes for BDCP.”

Ingram, the conservancy director, said he saw “a ripe opportunity” to blend other governance ideas with the BDCP to give in-Delta interests more of a role.

For all the detailed discussion, the question of how the Dialogues would move forward was not answered at the meeting. Facilitators Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin twice asked participants if they would like to figure out a way to get together before the next official Dialogues meeting (on Aug. 23) to come up with governance proposals. Conklin was particularly pointed: “We’re sort of at a point in the conversation where it would make sense to go away and make a proposal and bring it back to the group for reactions.”

But no one leaped at the opportunity.

That failure was a disappointment for facilitators, who have been urging the group to meet outside the formal sessions, to think of themselves as a network, and to talk more among themselves online. After the meeting, the facilitators said they would push participants again to do work outside the meetings, perhaps via working groups that could look at specific governance questions.

The meeting concluded with a short discussion of the Dialogues’ future. Participants and facilitators said that trust and team building within the dialogues had been a focus; now it was time to do public outreach and to make a policy and regulatory impact.

But it was clear that as the dialogues moved closer to having an impact, the work would get more difficult. “I think we might be in a little bit of a ‘what do we do next’ mode,” Cain said.


June 5th, 2013

The Delta Dialogues Are Back, and Better

Category: May 2013 Meeting
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“I’m still pissed off,” quipped Jason Peltier.

The room laughed. For this was the beginning of the first meeting of the second phase of the Delta Dialogues, and the tone of Peltier, the chief deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which hosted this gathering, was light-hearted.

The dialogues were getting back together again.

Dialogue participants had been talking (and even met to plan a second phase in February), but it had been seven months since the last official meeting of the dialogues, last October in Fisherman’s Wharf. But it was clear that the group – representing a diverse array of Delta interests (agriculture, state agencies, the federal government, local government, fishing, environmentalists) – remained comfortable with each other. The conversation was erupted by laughter more than 30 times. At one point, Peltier presented Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels, also of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, with a gift: a framed photo and story of President John F. Kennedy speaking at a dedication for the San Luis Dam and Reservoir west of Los Banos.

“Things do not happen,” Kennedy said, according to the account. “They are made to happen.”

A similar spirit, and a bit of impatience, infused the meeting, as the advantages of the lasting comfort between the participants were made clear. All the comfort seemed to create more space for conflict – and detailed conversations – than in any previous Delta Dialogues gathering.

A failure to get into the difficult details and conflict in the Delta  – “into the heat,” in the phrase favored by facilitator Kristin Cobble of Groupaya– had been one shared frustration of the first phase. The Phase 1 conversations had built relationships and trust among the participants, but not enough to surmount some of the wariness participants had about conducting frank conversations with people whom they had been fighting (and in some cases suing) for decades.

But this time, the group jumped right in. Facilitators’ questions about trusted sources of information on the Delta and about Chapter 7 of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan prompted such detailed exchanges that facilitators had to break in repeatedly to slow them down.

“I’m going to interrupt,” Cobble said at one point. “We’ve started having a conversation about the criteria for good governance. And it’s happening in reaction to the BDCP proposal.”

The exchange appeared to establish the question of governance – and how to build a better governance regime for and around the Delta – as the central question of Phase 2. Chapter 7 of the BDCP consists of 30 pages of governance. Few words of praise were said about the particulars, with even those who participated in its drafting emphasizing that it could be changed and improved.

The participants listed and discussed what they wanted to see in a governance plan. Seven principles were discussed. Governance should be transparent, be fair and balance different interests in the Delta, provide meaningful representation for in-Delta interests, especially local governments and farmers that have felt excluded, work incrementally, deter litigation, encourage participation, and create an environment for building relationships.

In a couple of key moments, the exchange suggested that government agencies and water contractors could build a governance set-up that could satisfy Delta agriculture and local governments. An agricultural stakeholder indicated that a truly balanced governance system could provide reassurance about some aspects of the BDCP, and a state official said there could be changes to give much more of a role in governance to agriculture and in-Delta interests.

Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District indicated that the meeting had helped to expand his thinking about an alternative Delta proposal championed by people in the Delta through the Delta Counties Coalition. “I came in thinking the DCC proposal was really out to lunch,” he said. “But now as I listen here, I think there are ways to fold in the Delta interests that might make sense.”

As evidence of the quality of conversation, in closing check outs, the participants said they were encouraged by each other’s statements.

The participants and facilitators also spent considerable time during the six-hour meeting (which included only a brief lunch break) defining the goals and focus of Phase 2 – mostly in opposition to Phase 1. Using a flip chart, Phase 1 was defined as creating shared understanding and strong internal dynamics between the dialogues participants. In Phase 2, participants said they wanted to produce a work product that could make an external impact and be published. The participants and facilitators discussed how the maps of the discussion, which are filled out in real time in front of the participants as they talk, could become a published document; in Phase 1, they had been used more as a note taking method.

“I’m very grateful that people took the opportunity today to jump in the pool,” said Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, who had been vocal in Phase 1 about the need for more detailed conversation. “And I’m grateful to you guys for making sure there was water in the pool.”

The first meeting of Phase 2 also included two new participants in the dialogues, who appeared to warm to the conversation as the day went on. Steve Chappell, executive director of the Suisun Resource Conservation, began the day striking a skeptical note about “lofty goals” and “global discussions” in the context of a Delta where big change is often unattainable. Chris Knopp, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, expressed similar skepticism.

But after a long day of conversation, they were optimistic in their closing comments, with Knopp calling the discussion “very enlightening” and said it had “opened up some thoughts on how to make some improvements” in how stakeholders participate in the implementation of the Delta Plan.

The session seemed to raise expectations for the second phase. Facilitator Jeff Conklin told the group that “everything in my life has been preparing to work on a problem … that is this huge, where the stakes are this high.”

But the optimism about what the dialogues participants might accomplish was tempered by pessimism about what could be accomplished outside the room, particularly given the BDCP and other processes for remaking the Delta. Brett Baker, a farmer and dialogues participant, said: “I have a great confidence that amongst ourselves we can find common ground. But when it comes to the processes, I’m not confident that we can influence what the outcome will be.”

Baker expressed concerns and questions in the meeting about the funders of the Dialogues and key players in the BDCP, and suggested that the dialogues needed to have such people in the room to be valuable. In an email to the dialogues’ storyteller and participants after the meeting, he wrote: “Should the funders of this process (Delta Dialogues), and those wielding power in the planning of BDCP (I’m talking about the ability to move lines on a map), continue to find themselves absent from these discussions, as will I.”

Dialogues participants said they intended to meet monthly. During the intervening seven months, participants had found funding for six months of gatherings – half of the planned Phase 2. Facilitators said they were training Campbell Ingram and Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy so they could lead sessions themselves in the future.