August 6th, 2012
by Joe Mathews
The Delta Dialogues took a hard turn into a big, newsy controversy in July, with a day-long gathering devoted to discussion of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and how its recent announcement should affect the future of the Dialogues.
The turn came at the fourth monthly session of the dialogues, at the Westlands Water District offices on the Capitol Mall in Sacramento that came two days after the BDCP press conference hosted by the state and federal governments. The turn was intentional, with facilitators of the Dialogues framing the session around the BDCP as a way of pushing the Dialogues more deeply into specifics. “We want to go into the fire,” Kristin Cobble, one of the facilitators with Groupaya, told the group early in the day. “We want to go where the lightning rod is provoking us.”
And so they did, for more than five hours, a session that produced some of the most difficult and enlightening conversations of the Dialogues. The tone remained civil, but the exchanges were frank and the differences seemed stark for the first time in a process that has emphasized what the participants have in common.
Participants from the environmental community and water users acknowledged that they supported the BDCP process, while others were more critical, with some questioning whether it was designed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion: The building of a conveyance to bring water from north to south via tunnels. Mary Piepho, a Contra Costa County supervisor, said the BDCP was “not a balanced, thorough proposal. Not comprehensive enough. It doesn’t include local government at the table or water storage components. It lacks a thorough cost benefit analysis and only one project alternative is being analyzed.”
State agency officials are part of the Dialogues, but none attended this meeting. Some participants raised questions about that absence, but no explanation for their absence was discussed.
Despite different opinions about the BDCP, some key points of agreement emerged. Participants agreed that there were deep fears about the BDCP process, and that those fears remained a huge obstacle to making progress in the Delta. (The room was divided on whether those fears were based on real risks or were more a byproduct of mistrust based on previous broken promises about Delta policies.) Participants agreed that the status quo was unacceptable, and that they were willing to make concessions in the name of progress.
One strong criticism of the BDCP also emerged, both from those sympathetic to the plan and those critical of it — that the BDCP process had not been sufficiently inclusive of “in-Delta” constituencies, particularly local governments and farmers. As a result, the recommendations were not as complete as participants would have liked.
Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Water District said the problem stemmed from the BDCP’s focus on its “co-equal goals” — ecosystem restoration and water supply — to the exclusion of the people in the Delta. Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy said he had felt “elation” from the BDCP’s commitment to restoring the Delta environment, but “disappointment” because “there was no strong similar commitment to protecting the Delta quality of life.”
The conversation felt disjointed at times. During the middle of the day, facilitators attempted to use the BDCP conversation to leap into a more difficult, specific conversation that would look at the details involved in creating a new method of governance for the Delta. This push occasioned puzzled looks from participants, and facilitators retreated.
The conversation also seemed to miss North Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels, who was ill. He sent along an email that was critical of BDCP and that was discussed for nearly half an hour. His name was mentioned more times than that any other participant, despite his absence.
In the afternoon, the conversation turned to determining how the Dialogues should go forward in light of BDCP. Should the Dialogues focus on misinformation and areas of disagreement about the facts of the Delta? Or should the focus be on how in-Delta interests don’t have trust in BDCP and other processes, and what would make them trust?
Through the discussion, it became clear that the questions were related. And, in a curious way, one area of agreement emerged: A shared feeling of mistrust. Multiple participants recalled broken promises related to the Delta. Given that history, participants said, as the meeting concluded, that they valued the opportunity the Dialogues provide for open conversation, even over controversial subjects.
In an email chain that followed up the meeting, participants said they would like to keep the momentum and have more follow-up conversations before the next regularly scheduled Dialogue gathering (August 24).