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.