Although the Delta Dialogues have been in hiatus, it doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy. On February 6, 2013, the Delta Dialogues was featured in a panel discussion entitled “Is Peace Possible In the Delta Water Wars?” at the UC Center in Sacramento. Panelists were Jason Peltier, Dale Hoffman-Floerke, Russell van Loben Sels, and Gilbert Cosio. Joe Mathews, who usually writes on this blog, was the moderator.
About 150 people attended the hour long panel discussion. Daniel Weintraub, from HealthyCal.org, wrote a nice summary at their website, here.
From May through October 2012, our intrepid storyteller, Joe Mathews, blogged about the first phase of the Delta Dialogues right here, as it happened. Since then, Joe has been interviewing participants, doing research, and fleshing out the story. The result is this wonderful, cohesive account of the whole process, made visually stunning by designer, Amy Wu. It’s a free download, so please share it widely, and let us know what you think in the comments below!
On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, several of our Delta Dialogues participants (Jason Peltier, Dale Hoffman-Floerke, Gilbert Cosio, and Russell van Loben Sels) will be telling the story of our process in a panel discussion hosted by the UC Center in Sacramento and moderated by our storyteller, Joe Mathews.
Is Peace Possible in the Delta Water Wars? February 6, 2013, 12:00-1:30pm
UC Center Sacramento, 1130 K St.
Free event. Lunch provided.
The conventional wisdom is that change in the Delta will come slowly, or not at all. Too much conflict. Too many stakeholders. Too many competing interests. All that litigation. But over the last year, a group of stakeholders in the Delta — representing a wide range of interests including agriculture, fisheries, environmental NGOs, local government, water agencies, levees, state and federal agencies — engaged in a novel process, the Delta Dialogues, in an attempt to come together. It wasn’t a negotiation, but an intense, facilitated conversation — with real-time mapping of the dialogue — with the goal of coming to a shared understanding of the Delta’s problems, and potential ways forward. They began these Delta Dialogues not trusting one another, but by the end, things had changed. Four dialogues participants — Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District, Dale Hoffman-Floerke of the State Department of Water Resources, Gilbert Cosio of MBK Engineers, and Russell van Loben Sels of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau — visit the UC Center to discuss what happened and whether the dialogues point a way to peace and progress in the Delta wars. (Moderated by Joe Mathews, Zócalo Public Square).
You can register at the UC Center website. Please spread the word! Looking forward to seeing many of you there.
Phase 1 of the Delta Dialogues wrapped up on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, with a briefing tour by commercial fishermen, a wild salmon lunch, and a fast-paced afternoon of conversation.
The conversation among participants shifted between the difficult daily lives of salmon fishermen and unanimous pledges from participants in attendance to continue the dialogues into a second phase — a phase for which there is as yet no funding.
The afternoon Dialogues, at the Aquarium of the Bay, were built around a detailed summing up of the process, as participants went back through the Dialogue Maps from the six months of the process. Those interactive maps, viewed together, represented a living document of the process, showing shared understanding in three broad areas: about the legacy of broken promises in the Delta, the complexity of the numerous stressors for the Delta, and the need for greater improvement and inclusion in existing Delta planning processes.
The participants added to those maps thoughts from one last exercise in which they were asked to post yellow notes on a wall upon which they had written answer to the question: What do we need to do to better meet stakeholders needs with current conveyance over the next 15 years?
The answers were wide-ranging and could frame future discussions: Improve water flow for species in the Delta, restore habitat (starting with experiments), continue trust building, understanding interests / getting to yes, more science and adaptive management, get better, improve water supply reliability, improve water quality, deal with additional stressors make hard decisions, and create spaces in Delta governance where everyone has a voice.
Based on a show of hands, the participants voted to focus this last meeting of Phase 1 on trust building. The detailed conversation included a provocative suggestion from Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy that the Delta needed a process something like the truth and reconciliation process after the troubles in Northern Ireland — a way to deal fully and forthrightly with the past, and move forward together so Delta stakeholders can verify what they’re doing, and its effects.
The discussion followed a morning-long field trip — including a stop on the sport fishing boat Wacky Jacky — that participants called powerful. Fishermen who work in the Bay and Delta described the decline of their industry. The pain is not merely financial; fisherman Larry Collins said he had seen friends and colleagues disappear, and in at least one case commit suicide because of the decline of fishing.
One point of emphasis: the fishing industry had been willing to accept less to protect fish and water — including shutting down the California salmon fishing in recent years — but other interests that affect the Delta and fishing had been unwilling to sacrifice for the long-term greater good.
The fishermen also described in detail how they work — catching one fish at a time under California rules — and shared stories (especially about the evils of sea lions — “fur bags” because they eat lots of the salmon that the fishermen want to catch).
Participants, as they recounted the conversation with fishermen, described one regret about the field trip: that Dialogues participants from agriculture and the water agencies were unable to attend because they were traveling.
Facilitator Kristin Cobble of Groupaya concluded the meeting by reminding the participants, “You have built relationships. You have built trust. Now you are ready to be bold together. If you can be bold together, you will see results.”
Participants pledged to support a continuation of the dialogues, though their ambitions varied. Some said they hoped the dialogues could be a forum for developing practical solutions and deals to the Delta’s real problems. Others indicated they liked to preserve the dialogues as a “safe space” or “safe container” for conversations that could not be had in more formal settings and in the official planning processes within the Delta. Some suggested that both could be part of the dialogues future.
Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy said he felt that the spirit and work of the Delta should infuse those planning processes. “The sentiment at the table going around is very, very different than the BDCP table or the Delta Stewardship Council. I want to bring more of this into these processes.” Ingram added that “as the issues get more contentious, there’s a more solid foundation to get into the issues” in future conversations.
When and where those conversations will take place was uncertain.
First, people recognize that the green line really does depict the “seismic” process that individuals or groups go through when dealing with a complex and novel problem.
Second, they also recognize that they have been acting as if the red line, not the green line, was how things worked. It’s a lovely moment to behold, like that moment of truth in the Hans Christian Anderson story when the child points out that the Emperor has no clothes.
We need more of these moments, when a trance of social collusion in a myth is broken, and people are freed to trust their experience over proclamations from an authority. It’s good news, this freedom, except of course for the duped Emperor and his obliging court… and their proclamations!
After all, the red line can be managed. It lets you predict the time and money required to get to the solution, and manage the process to stay on schedule and budget. Much of the field of project management is founded on the illusion of the red line, with its orderly cascade from being presented with a new project to the ribbon cutting ceremony.
The green line, of course, is a force of chaos that managers know well, for they are skilled in suppressing that uncontrollable green line process. When the chaos can’t be suppressed, managers use another important skill: Telling a red-line story about the process (aka “status reports”), reinforcing the illusion that the red line really is the way things work.
The main problem with managing from a red-line perspective is that the chaos depicted by the green line is also known as “learning,” and it thus represents the emotional roller coaster familiar to anyone these days who is cursed to be working in a group on a “wicked problem.”
Countless hours are spent in meetings that go nowhere, and that, because of this lack of traction, must be repeated endlessly. There are always “bad stakeholders” who refuse to play by the rules of the game, and who have enough power to sabotage the implementation of the solution, if not the planning process itself. And just when a viable solution is in sight, some new stakeholder shows up and declares (without any gratitude for the hard work done by the other stakeholders to date) that the whole premise of the project is deeply flawed — that “the real issue is” some new factor that the project team has been avoiding. And so the planning process must be rebooted.
These are all symptoms of the process of being forced to wade into the swamp of possible solutions with a group of diverse stakeholders that doesn’t yet understand what the “real problem” is. Such is the territory of contending with problems that involve many stakeholders, have been around for a long time, and are steeped in immense technical and scientific complexity, aka wicked problems. There are no experts who’ve solved similar problems before, or who have the proven process that can guide the project directly to a robust solution. (Those were the days!)
Sure, it’s possible to create and follow a red-line cascade of steps from problem definition to robust solution. It happens all the time with tame problems. The red line is thus a depiction of already knowing, and if the problem you’re working on submits to a linear, red line set of steps to arrive at its solution, then lucky you!
You must resist the temptation, however, of “taming” a problem by artificially narrowing its scope to fit the circumstances, or by excluding stakeholders from your planning process because they’re likely to be unruly. For a professional to do so is unethical (hence the term wicked problem), and never ends well. Many of the most spectacular project failures in the past few decades took the low road of taming a wicked problem. And many times the results of such shortcuts just exacerbate the problem, making it that much harder to address effectively.
These Delta Dialogues are rooted in a new approach to planning, a highly inclusive approach that accepts the green line as essential, because it represents the learning process, and because it leads to shared understanding among the stakeholders, something more valuable and enduring than a mere “solution” to the Delta’s problems.
After six months of meetings and phone calls throughout this first phase of the Delta Dialogues, how much shared understanding is there?
The late September Dialogues meeting offered a test of just that question, in the form of an extended exercise.
When participants in the Delta Dialogues arrived at the Delta Conservancy’s offices in West Sacramento, eight easels were standing around the room, with big blank sheets of paper on each. Soon, representatives of eight different interests — fish and recreation, water users, agriculture, Delta levees, state/federal water agencies, state/federal regulatory agencies, NGOs/environmental, and local government — were asked to pick a board and make two lists. First, name your top three needs in a plan for the Delta that includes conveyance. Second, name your three biggest concerns.
After they’d done this, the different interests were asked to look at each other’s boards. Then, they affixed stickers of different colors to the needs and concerns of others. A green dot was placed next to concerns or needs that they had predicted. A red dot showed that they hadn’t expected that interest to have that need or concern. A blue dot conveyed a lack of understanding.
As each interest read and discussed and posted stickers next to the needs and concerns of others, the room filled with the smiles of expectations met — and some pleasant surprises. They understood each other in most cases. And, when the expressed concerns and needs of others were different than they expected, the surprise lay in the fact that there was so much agreement.
“It was refreshing,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, once the exercise was over. “Others are thinking the way I’m thinking.”
“We found out that we may have said things differently,” said Dick Pool, representing the commercial and recreational fishing industries, “but we were saying the same thing.”
After that, John Cain of American Rivers deadpanned: “I was thinking the same thing.”
The most surprising need, expressed by state and federal water agencies, was their need for the least disruptive solutions in the Delta that enhance the Delta “as a place” with a strong economic, agriculture, recreation and other things. The stakeholders present also were surprised by water users’ expressed need that a conveyance system be compatible with existing activities and ecosystem functions, including fishing and farming.
Surveying the room, facilitator Kristin Cobble whispered to her colleagues, Eugene Kim and Jeff Conklin, “We have a lot of shared understanding here.”
The demonstration of shared understanding and the detailed discussion that began during the exercise and continued through the meeting left some participants saying it was the strongest meeting so far. Several indicated that they wanted to move into more detailed conversations around what one called “shared solutions.”
In the afternoon, the discussion jumped between specifics and broader conversation about how to move forward with the conversation in the most productive way. Conklin drafted a jagged line on a graph — “like a seismograph,” he noted — to explain the chaotic, difficult sorts of conversation that go into the weeds, but are in fact the way that human beings talk when they learn and address wicked problems.
Such a jagged line is different than the traditional problem-solving process of gathering and analyzing data and focusing on a problem for a long time before formulating a solution. That may sound good or simple, but problem-solving doesn’t work like that, Conklin said. What really should happen in efforts to address complex problems is that participants go back and forth between the problem and potential solutions over and over again in a process that, if mapped, looks like the jagged line.
Some participants said they thought the group got along well enough that they could take the jagged path by addressing more difficult issues and even courting disagreement.
The September meeting also included a new addition to the dialogues: Tom Zuckerman. A Delta landowner who has had a variety of different roles, Zuckerman had been identified as a leader in the Delta in one of the monthly phone calls that have been part of the process. He said he had “been through lots of processes. I’m getting old with a limited amount of energy and time.” He said he wanted to “watch and listen” to the meeting before signing on.
The final meeting of this first phase of the Dialogues is scheduled for October 26.
As the first phase of the Delta Dialogues draws to a close (our final meeting is at the end of this month), we asked our participants to explain what this process was all about, what they learned, what the impact might be, and why we should continue this experiment. Here’s a five-minute video compilation of what some of them said:
Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, we think it’s essential that this process continue. We’re working on designing the next phase of the Delta Dialogues to extend this work for another year. If you have thoughts, please share them in the comments below. Stay tuned.
The first phase of the Delta Dialogues consists of five calls and seven monthly in-person meetings, the last of which is scheduled for October 26.
What will come next?
It’s unclear. But participants in the Dialogues have begun discussing a second phase of the process. The desire to go forward was expressed forcefully near the end of the August 24 meeting, when participants said they needed more time to build the shared understanding that is the goal of the dialogues.
It also was the topic of a call among participants the afternoon of August 31. Among the suggestions for Phase 2 were more field trips to important parts of the Delta, so participants can see the places and issues they’re talking about; community workshops that “export” the Dialogues outside the participants; and longer in-person meetings, perhaps even meetings that went beyond just one day.
Participants and facilitators are already working on plans for Phase 2, and are preparing to apply for funding. They seem to be casting a wide net. One of the Dialogues’ facilitators, Eugene Eric Kim of Groupaya, even asked your storyteller’s opinion about Phase 2 on a late-night phone call.
My own answer: Mostly more building along the same lines of dialogue we’ve seen so far. But there are three new things I’d like to see in a Phase 2 of the process.
The first is the presence of some of the researchers and scientists who study the Delta. But I don’t want them there just to study the Dialogues. As we’ve seen throughout the Dialogues, researchers and scientists from places like the Public Policy Institute of California have played a big role in shaping perception of the Delta. And there has been real concern expressed in the process about whether research on the Delta is up to date or whether it is a contributor to misunderstanding in the dialogues. In an important way, the scientific community working in the Delta is a Delta stakeholder. I’d like to see them present and part of the conversation.
The second is that I’d like to see if the Dialogues could find a way to permit journalists other than just me to observe the process, while protecting the ability of participants to speaker freely.
The third is that I’d like to see more detailed discussion of specific solutions to the problem. This is not to say that the Dialogues will produce solutions. But as Dialogues’ facilitator Jeff Conklin explains in his book Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, the act of searching for a solution is how human beings come to shared understanding of problems. So let’s see stakeholders get into the weeds: How should habitat be restored in the Delta in a way that meets the needs of the various Delta stakeholders? What’s the best path forward to levee protection? How can the needs of water users be met without hurting farmers and fish?
My thoughts, of course, are only suggestions. But as the plans are being put together, now is a good time to offer your ideas if you have them — by contacting participants and facilitators, or by offering them directly on this site.
Dialogue mapping captures the concepts of a conversation in a way that keeps intact the context and connections of what is said. Other commitments prevented me from attending the August meeting, and I wanted to get a sense of what happened. Reading through two maps in particular I finally heard something I had not heard before (which is not to imply it had not been said before). The experience was not of just reading a fact or a statement, but of actually hearing—as in understanding a little bit better—different aspects of an issue.
Here are the two statements that struck me:
“Delta believes there’s need for conveyance. Just a question of how to do it. We get all the impact, they get all the benefits” (from What can we build shared understanding around?)
“Delta interests would have to come up with a coherent set of asks” (from How can we bring in-Delta interests to the table?)
In all the meetings I have attended over the years, I do not recall hearing so clearly these two points: what benefit from the other processes could come to the Delta residents and what is it that the Delta residents want from the other processes. I felt excited about my “ah-ha” moment.
These two statements seemed to me to be like two sides of the same coin; a coin that is minted in openness and willingness to learn and that can be spent in developing mutually satisfying outcomes. These two statements, taken together, invite the Delta Dialogue participants to explore more fully. I think such a conversation will lead to better understanding and better options to manage the complex situation in the Delta.
This “ah-ha” experience confirmed for me the benefit of dialogue mapping as a means of communicating and building shared understanding.
In the fifth in-person session of the Delta Dialogues, participants took bites of fruit, took stock of the Dialogues themselves, and took control of the process, outlining goals for future conversations.
After a morning site visit to North Delta farms, where pears were inspected and grapes sampled, the participants spent much of the afternoon of August 24 reviewing their work to date, including a detailed review of a “model map” — a compilation and distillation of the Dialogue Maps that have charted the Dialogues to date.
The conversation in Clarksburg was friendly and blunt, and participants seemed more assertive than they had in previous sessions. The participants changed the direction of the meeting at a couple points, and articulated critical questions for future Dialogues, suggesting the Dialogues continue past their scheduled conclusion in late October.
The conversation was enriched by what facilitators called the best mix of stakeholder participation to date, with representation from agriculture, fisheries, stage and federal agencies, local government, environmental groups, and recreation.
The afternoon talk also was well framed by the morning tour, which included frank exchanges between North Delta farmers and Dialogues participants, some of whom have been involved in litigation against each other. (At one point, Doug Hemly, the president of Greene & Hemly, as he gave the tour, asked for a show of hands of people involved in litigation against him.) The farmers, as they showed off pears, apples, grapes, and packing houses, complained about the uncertainty created by the current state of the Delta and the plans for it, including the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). They also expressed fears that they would feel most of the impacts of water conveyance while benefits of the changes would be elsewhere. In response, some participants suggested that the farmers’ fears were overblown and that they could benefit. People on both sides of the discussion said they appreciated seeing “Ground Zero” — North Delta sites where a water conveyance system could be built.
Throughout the day, the participants’ strong sense of ownership of the Dialogues process was clear. But so were strong divisions among the group over various issues, most notably the BDCP.
In-Delta interests criticized the BDCP and previous Delta efforts for not including them and their ideas in the development of plans. Other participants disputed that, saying that the in-Delta interests had not responded to invitations to join the BDCP process and that the ideas of such interests were not always relevant or useful.
The argument continued from there. In-Delta interests responded that the outcome of the BDCP, from their viewpoint, was pre-determined — to build tunnels for water conveyance — and so participation in the BDCP would have required agreeing to a conclusion with which they could not agree. Other stakeholders, in turn, said that such views were mistaken, and that environmental reviews, lawsuits and the BDCP process offered plenty of opportunities to change the process and the outcome — if in-Delta interests could be successfully engaged.
The multiple exchanges on the BDCP and water conveyance did not get deeply into details. Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy pointed this out, and argued that the Dialogues, with their stated goal of shared understanding, provided an opportunity to flesh out details and define terms.
He outlined three questions the Dialogues could answer:
What would constitute being “at the table” for in-Delta interests?
Once “being at the table” was defined,” how could in-Delta interests be brought to the table?
If those first two questions could be answered, how could the dialogues “export” those answers to other stakeholders and to the public so that it could shape future work on Delta questions?
To push things forward, participants discussed taking a particular issue — habitat was raised — and trying to dig deeply into that as part of a path to shared understanding. Several participants also indicated the current process, which is scheduled to conclude in late October, does not offer enough time to do this. The possibility of a second phase of the Dialogues, to follow shortly after the current process, was discussed briefly at the meeting, and at more length in an August 31 call.
“I’d say we made good progress today, but we also hit some pretty good barriers,” said Dick Pool, representing commercial and recreational fishing, at the meeting’s conclusion. “And I’d say we’re going to need a continuation of the process.”
NOTE: The writer of this post was absent from the August dialogues, and based this account on video and audio recordings of the meeting and tour, and on conversations with participants.