June 27th, 2012

Why I’m Participating


Russell van Loben Sels is a North Delta farmer and is a Delta Dialogues participant.

Delta Dialogues establishes a forum for discussions related to achieving the co-equal goals of a more reliable water supply for California and restoration of the Delta ecosystem in a manner that protects and enhances the Delta as a place — truly a “wicked problem” without easy solutions. Currently, processes that will have tremendous impact upon the Delta economy, its people and ecosystem are advancing. When these processes recognize and provide for the Delta’s needs, progress on the coequal goals will be achievable. Delta Dialogues can be a powerful tool to attain understanding, and from that understanding, will effect direction and progress.

At each of our meetings, I have learned something new and remain hopeful that our shared knowledge will result in solutions which advance the coequal goals in a manner that truly protects and enhances the Delta as a place. In order to accomplish these goals, we will all need to be prepared to modify our positions and the reasoning and understanding that support them.

June 26th, 2012

June Delta Dialogues: We’re Eating Steak Now


The first two Delta Dialogues meetings, in April and in May, set the table for a detailed conversation about the Delta’s future.

At the third meeting, on June 15, the steak was finally served. Literally.

Over three intense hours on the wood-paneled second floor of Peter’s Steak House in Isleton, participants chewed over a host of complicated issues, with a particular focus on levees and habitat restoration.

This launch into specifics felt like the end of the beginning for the dialogues. And the session ended with the group outlining a plan for detailed, follow-up work on key issues — alleviating misinformation, levee protection, complications of habitat restoration, trust building, and governance — at an extended, day-long Dialogue meeting on July 27.

“This is the most positive conversation I get to enjoy,” said Jason Peltier of the Westlands Water District. “So much of what we communicate about relative to the Delta is conflict-based, but here we are so constructive, so common in our interests. Sure we disagree, but no one is disagreeable.”

The conversation was framed by a two-hour tour of Bouldin Island levees led by Gilbert Cosio of MBK Engineers. Cosio showed the group four different spots on a levee that is in the process of being strengthened.

The tour, on a windy day, illustrated the complicated nature of levee design, the variety of conditions of the levees, and the delicacy of levee repair. Cosio made two points that seemed to resonate with those on the tour and that were referred to several times during the subsequent afternoon meeting.

First, he noted how slow, careful, and deliberate one must be in rebuilding a levee. Levees move (in one Stockton project, the peat in a levee moved three feet overnight and 13 feet in the course of the project, he said), and changes in levees, even improvements, can be dangerous in the short-term to the levee. In the Delta, everything has ripple effects.

Second, he recounted the history of levees and, in particular, promises that were made 50 years ago that the State Water Project would include the rebuilding of the Delta’s levees. It didn’t happen.

“The way the Delta people see it, they never got what they were promised,” said Cosio.

Russell van Loben Sels, a Dialogues participant and North Delta Farmer who was on the tour, nodded and added: “There are a lot of things in the Delta that have not happened the way they were supposed to.”

Those two, related ideas — that the Delta is more complicated and interrelated than generally thought, and that today’s Delta efforts are undermined by the broken promises of the past — served to propel the Dialogue discussion that afternoon.

That session started with follow-up discussion about the tour and levee issues. Cosio said that many recent reports on levee failure were based on old knowledge and failed to account for hundreds of millions of dollars of levee work since 2005. The conversation soon pivoted from levees to habitat restoration, as participants noted that, as in levees, habitat restoration must be done with the recognition that a small change in one part of the Delta can affect people elsewhere. This part of the conversation brought the sharpest exchange of the dialogues so far — between Brett Baker, a fish biologist and farmer whose family has lived in the Delta for six generations, and Carl Wilcox of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Wilcox made the point that levees are crucial for protecting habitat, as well as agriculture. He mentioned the habitat restoration at Liberty Island as a potential model for how to do this in the Delta.

Baker objected, arguing that the example of one island shouldn’t be extrapolated to the rest of the system. After some back and forth, Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy broke in to say there was common ground between them: that the habitat questions were complex, that there’s been very little habitat restoration, and that there needed to be more dialogue before any progress could be made on the issue. Van Loben Sels then made a similar point. The exchange served to propel the conversation forward, as participants talked about specific areas and questions that were misunderstood and needed more dialogue.

At one point, the participants gathered around a Dialogue Map, blown up and posted on the wall, that listed all the visions of the Delta’s future — specifically in 2040 — that participants had offered at the previous May meeting. Participants were given small green and red stickers, in the shape of dots. They were asked to put their green dots near visions they agreed with and red dots near those with which they had trouble.

Several said they found it hard to place the red dots. Participants ended up putting red dots mostly near visions that they thought were less than pragmatic. (“No net loss of agricultural land” drew a red dot because the idea that there could be “no net loss of anything” seemed unrealistic. Notions that the Delta should be able to manage itself also drew red dots, because of a consensus that the Delta’s complex systems require management). Green dots were placed by several participants near calls for better infrastructure, more integrated planning in the Delta, strong agricultural presence, and the idea of a X-prize style competition for ideas that improve the Delta.

The latter part of the discussion exposed a potential tension between big and small visions of Delta change that could surface in future discussions.

The participants tended to agree that doing even a small thing in the Delta has impact on many other parts of the Delta, forcing discussions and planning to be broader and bigger. But the participants also agreed that attempting to do many things at once creates logjams and runs up against the lack of trust that is the product of historic broken promises in the Delta.

How will the participants reconcile the need to be broad and inclusive, while also being small and targeted?

Stay tuned.