May 31st, 2012

May Delta Dialogues: Back, and to the Future


What was the agenda of last Friday’s session of the Delta Dialogues?

Time travel. The destination was the future. The transport machine was built from imagination and optimism.

“Imagine that it’s May 25, 2040,” a facilitator of the Dialogues asked. “Imagine where you might be. Imagine that you and the people in this room and the people outside the room somehow manage to do the impossible, make decisions, and create a healthy, thriving Delta.”

With that, the dozen Dialogues participants in attendance — representing agriculture, local government, water contractors, state agencies, federal government, urban water users, and the environmental community — were asked this question: What does a healthy, thriving Delta look like in 2040?

By framing the conversation this way, facilitators said they wanted to put the dialogues on a stronger path to the kind of shared understanding that is so difficult in today’s Delta. As Jason Peltier of the Westlands Water District said during the meeting, “One of the challenges we have here is we have so much knowledge about the delta, so much data, but so little common understanding.”

But might there be common understanding if the conversation took place in the future?

Participants first jotted down their visions of the 2040 Delta. Then they shared them with a fellow participant, then with the entire body. Participants spoke in the present tense, as though they were in 2040.

The emphasis of each participant’s vision varied, from the water levels to the amount of recreation use. But what emerged — during a sharing of visions that was noted in real time on a screen via a tool called Dialogue Mapping — were remarkably similar visions of the future. (There also was a strongly shared gratitude that all the participants were still alive in 2040).

The biggest common thread in these visions of the future was a Delta of great variety. Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy imagined having just finished a 12-mile bike ride after some time water skiing, in a Delta with agriculture, wetlands, native vegetation, fruit stands with local produce, and great fishing.

Participants also offered similar visions around improved water quality, the strong presence of agriculture, and smarter Delta governance that would be at once more coherent and centralized (everything from state management to United Nations management was suggested) and also more fluid and adaptable to changing conditions.

The visions also shared a strong sentiment that science, technology, and data would drive decisions and allow stakeholders in the Delta to be smarter and more efficient in fulfilling needs.

There were more specific differences over issues such as dredging (some participants thought it would be a thing of the past by 2040, while others saw it as part of the future) and on questions of diverting water. Late in the session, facilitators asked participants to imagine what actions taken between the years 2012 and 2017 would lead to their 2040 visions. The conversation didn’t get very far before time ran out. Facilitators closed the meeting by asking participants to keep pondering these questions and to write in their journals — provided as part of the Dialogues — as thoughts occur.

After three previous meetings that set up the Dialogues, May’s session felt like a step forward into specific issues and content. One facilitator said that while previous meetings had involved “making the stew” and “creating the container” for the dialogues, this session would see the start of the cooking.

Participants expressed a mix of emotions during the session. Many noted the quality of the conversation, but others worried about its prospects and about the particulars of the session. John Cain, conservation director at American Rivers, said he would like to see more people who live in the Delta: “I’m disappointed more local stakeholders aren’t present.” Other participants, in response, noted that three participants had been unexpectedly unable to attend, two because of deaths of close ones or colleagues.

Most of the participants in the May session came early to tour the McCormack-Williamson tract in two big white vans. Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, which owns the island, explained the group’s plans to restore the original marshland.

Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, pressed Winternitz repeatedly on whether the Nature Conservancy had considered the full economic impact that restoration — by taking productive farmland out of service — would have on people who work the fields, service the farms, sell insurance to farms, and depend on county tax revenues, which would be impacted by the change. The friendly, spirited exchange between the two men continued throughout the tour, and seemed to shape the broad conversation in the formal session.

At lunch after the tour but before the meeting, participants marveled at the size, peacefulness, and cleanliness of the Delta. Participants praised every aspect of the tour (save the driving of the Delta Conservancy’s Campbell Ingram, who piloted one of the two vans), and resolved to have more tours before future meetings.

The next Dialogue was set for June 15.

May 23rd, 2012

Why I’m Watching the Delta Dialogues


A big part of my job as a journalist and think tank fellow is to talk about why California’s budget and governing systems don’t work. So about 50 times a year, I explain to audiences around the state how we got into our current mess, and I outline all the policy options for fixing our system.

Each time, someone inevitably stands up and asks, “So I accept your explanation and love all the different ideas for fixing things, but how can you ever possibly get enough people and interest groups in California to come together and agree on any fix?”

And my only reply is: “I have no idea how you do that.”

Mine is an honest answer. And also an unsatisfying one. Which is why I agreed to serve as storyteller for the Delta Dialogues. I want to know how we might progress in getting California out of its crisis.

This is a personal and professional concern. This is my home state. I’m fourth generation Californian and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. I’ve spent the past 12 years as a reporter and editor here, first for the LA Times, then with the think tank New America, and most recently with a fast-growing magazine called Zócalo. I’ve written two books. Virtually all of my work has involved explaining why California’s politics and government don’t work.

Despite all of this, I’m a strange choice for a storytelling role in a Delta-based project. I live in Southern California, hundreds of miles from the Delta (though I do appreciate the water we receive). I don’t farm or fish or design waterworks (though in the past, members of my extended family have done those things). And, for all my writing and research on California issues, I’ve always avoided the subject of water.

It seemed way too complicated. It was a wicked problem, and I was already consumed by different California wicked problems: our broken budget process and our giant mess of a constitution.

But over the past two years, my outlook and my work has changed. I’ve been trying hard to move beyond describing the budget and governance crisis and to spend time thinking about how we Californians could come together and fix it.

In my search for solutions, I’ve been intrigued by efforts around the world to create deliberative processes with small groups of citizens to resolve very complicated problems. The exact methods vary, as do the specific problems and the locations. (I’ve encountered these processes in Australia, British Columbia, Brussels, Brazil, and Texas.) But in each place, the goal was to bring together stakeholders faced with big, complicated problems, and find some way to understand, cooperate, and compromise.

Of course, reading about such efforts is one thing. Seeing one in person is another thing entirely. And so when I was offered the opportunity to observe a deliberative process like the Delta Dialogues, I couldn’t refuse.

I don’t know if the Delta Dialogues will be a success. I know from my reading that many deliberative processes fail. And I’m very cynical (journalism does that to you) about the ability of people to come together and make progress. But if the Delta Dialogues create a shared understanding of how to address the Delta’s challenges, I’d like to be there to see for myself how the breakthrough happened.

Because if the stakeholders of the Delta succeed in these dialogues, their example could offer lessons for how we might solve all sorts of California problems.

May 11th, 2012

Delta Dialogues Kickoff: “Addicted” to the Delta

Category: April Meeting

“This feels like one of those 12-step support groups,” said the engineer. “My name is Gilbert Cosio, and I’m addicted to the Delta.”

Cosio, a principal of MBK Engineers, which works for reclamation districts to maintain levees in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, was joking. But his good humor and passion for the Delta were characteristic of the Delta Dialogues kickoff, a new process for Delta stakeholders.

Over three hours at the West Sacramento Community Center on a recent Friday afternoon, 14 Delta stakeholders — representing agriculture, two state agencies, the salmon industry, tourism, county government, flood management, environmental, and the Delta Conservancy, which has convened the process — gathered to outline goals for the process and set ground rules. They also shared some personal stories of the Delta and pointed out their favorite places in the region on a map.

Delta Dialogues

The Dialogues represent a departure from previous efforts to convene Delta stakeholders over the Delta. Instead of formal meetings or specific planning processes, the Dialogues have the broad goal of “developing shared understanding of the future of the Delta,” using Dialogue Mapping, a process that captured the conversation and consensus of the group (on a screen that all participants could see) during the meeting.

Such an understanding could make it easier to address the Delta’s complex challenges, by informing and influencing existing planning processes, and catalyze more meetings between stakeholders.

The Delta Conservancy is seeking to continue the Dialogues — which followed up two preliminary meetings along similar lines in January and February — over six monthly meetings on the third or fourth Fridays of each month for the next six months. Five phone calls are also scheduled.

At this initial gathering, facilitators and participants talked about the challenges of the Delta as a “wicked problem” — a term for problems so complex they cannot be understood at any level of completeness or rigor. There are no “correct” solutions to wicked problems, because there is no way of knowing what’s correct. Wicked problems are moving targets, where any attempt at solving them results in completely new formulations of the problem.

Participants said they were eager to participate in a process that would lead to shared understanding. But some also spoke of “baggage” from previous efforts to bring Delta stakeholders together, and expressed urgency that these meetings would lead to real progress on Delta issues.

Developing Shared Understanding

Several participants also said they hoped that the Dialogues would clear up mistakes and misconceptions in private and public understandings of the Delta. Russell van Loben Sels, a lifelong Delta resident who farms 2,500 acres, said that a document outlining the Dialogues contained a misrepresentation of a consensus in the Delta where there is none.

That document reads: “Most of the Delta is below sea level, protected by a deteriorating series of levees. When (not if) these levees fail, thousands of lives may be lost, and millions of livelihoods will be destroyed. This is the extent to which stakeholders in the Delta seem to agree.”

The discussion made plain that there was no such consensus. Some participants argued that improvements and changes to levees in recent decades made the picture of levee safety far more complicated and uncertain than is often portrayed. Others said it was important not to dilute the risk of levee failure.

Participants said one way to gain a greater, shared understanding on this and other issues would be to hold the meetings in different parts of the Delta, where gatherings could be combined with firsthand observation. Cosio, the engineer, offered to arrange for a visit to a levee for the group, and other participants said they could arrange meetings at various Delta locations.

Ground Rules for Participation

The group spent much of the session wrestling with the ground rules and trying to reconcile conflicting goals within the process. Among these discussions:

  • Participants wanted more interests and expertise represented in the room, and resolved to invite more people to meetings. (One specific suggestion: a scientist should be in the room for certain questions). But participants also wanted to keep the group small enough to make the conversation manageable.
  • Some participants said it was important for the work being done in the Dialogues – and any progress made – to be known by other stakeholders and the public. But the group also resolved to make sure that the meetings were a “safe space” where people could speak freely.

In response, ground rules were outlined that would allow participants to declare certain comments “off record” and to approve direct quotations that appear in accounts of the meetings, including this one.

Eleven of the 14 participants indicated a willingness to be identified by face and by name on this web site as participating in the process. The three others — representing two state agencies and one federal agency — indicated they would have to clear such participation with supervisors.

The exact date and location of the next meeting were not formally set, but May 25, 2012 appeared to be the most likely date.