June 5th, 2013
by Joe Mathews
The room laughed. For this was the beginning of the first meeting of the second phase of the Delta Dialogues, and the tone of Peltier, the chief deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which hosted this gathering, was light-hearted.
The dialogues were getting back together again.
Dialogue participants had been talking (and even met to plan a second phase in February), but it had been seven months since the last official meeting of the dialogues, last October in Fisherman’s Wharf. But it was clear that the group – representing a diverse array of Delta interests (agriculture, state agencies, the federal government, local government, fishing, environmentalists) – remained comfortable with each other. The conversation was erupted by laughter more than 30 times. At one point, Peltier presented Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels, also of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, with a gift: a framed photo and story of President John F. Kennedy speaking at a dedication for the San Luis Dam and Reservoir west of Los Banos.
A similar spirit, and a bit of impatience, infused the meeting, as the advantages of the lasting comfort between the participants were made clear. All the comfort seemed to create more space for conflict – and detailed conversations – than in any previous Delta Dialogues gathering.
A failure to get into the difficult details and conflict in the Delta – “into the heat,” in the phrase favored by facilitator Kristin Cobble of Groupaya– had been one shared frustration of the first phase. The Phase 1 conversations had built relationships and trust among the participants, but not enough to surmount some of the wariness participants had about conducting frank conversations with people whom they had been fighting (and in some cases suing) for decades.
But this time, the group jumped right in. Facilitators’ questions about trusted sources of information on the Delta and about Chapter 7 of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan prompted such detailed exchanges that facilitators had to break in repeatedly to slow them down.
“I’m going to interrupt,” Cobble said at one point. “We’ve started having a conversation about the criteria for good governance. And it’s happening in reaction to the BDCP proposal.”
The exchange appeared to establish the question of governance – and how to build a better governance regime for and around the Delta – as the central question of Phase 2. Chapter 7 of the BDCP consists of 30 pages of governance. Few words of praise were said about the particulars, with even those who participated in its drafting emphasizing that it could be changed and improved.
The participants listed and discussed what they wanted to see in a governance plan. Seven principles were discussed. Governance should be transparent, be fair and balance different interests in the Delta, provide meaningful representation for in-Delta interests, especially local governments and farmers that have felt excluded, work incrementally, deter litigation, encourage participation, and create an environment for building relationships.
In a couple of key moments, the exchange suggested that government agencies and water contractors could build a governance set-up that could satisfy Delta agriculture and local governments. An agricultural stakeholder indicated that a truly balanced governance system could provide reassurance about some aspects of the BDCP, and a state official said there could be changes to give much more of a role in governance to agriculture and in-Delta interests.
Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District indicated that the meeting had helped to expand his thinking about an alternative Delta proposal championed by people in the Delta through the Delta Counties Coalition. “I came in thinking the DCC proposal was really out to lunch,” he said. “But now as I listen here, I think there are ways to fold in the Delta interests that might make sense.”
As evidence of the quality of conversation, in closing check outs, the participants said they were encouraged by each other’s statements.
The participants and facilitators also spent considerable time during the six-hour meeting (which included only a brief lunch break) defining the goals and focus of Phase 2 – mostly in opposition to Phase 1. Using a flip chart, Phase 1 was defined as creating shared understanding and strong internal dynamics between the dialogues participants. In Phase 2, participants said they wanted to produce a work product that could make an external impact and be published. The participants and facilitators discussed how the maps of the discussion, which are filled out in real time in front of the participants as they talk, could become a published document; in Phase 1, they had been used more as a note taking method.
“I’m very grateful that people took the opportunity today to jump in the pool,” said Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, who had been vocal in Phase 1 about the need for more detailed conversation. “And I’m grateful to you guys for making sure there was water in the pool.”
The first meeting of Phase 2 also included two new participants in the dialogues, who appeared to warm to the conversation as the day went on. Steve Chappell, executive director of the Suisun Resource Conservation, began the day striking a skeptical note about “lofty goals” and “global discussions” in the context of a Delta where big change is often unattainable. Chris Knopp, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, expressed similar skepticism.
But after a long day of conversation, they were optimistic in their closing comments, with Knopp calling the discussion “very enlightening” and said it had “opened up some thoughts on how to make some improvements” in how stakeholders participate in the implementation of the Delta Plan.
The session seemed to raise expectations for the second phase. Facilitator Jeff Conklin told the group that “everything in my life has been preparing to work on a problem … that is this huge, where the stakes are this high.”
But the optimism about what the dialogues participants might accomplish was tempered by pessimism about what could be accomplished outside the room, particularly given the BDCP and other processes for remaking the Delta. Brett Baker, a farmer and dialogues participant, said: “I have a great confidence that amongst ourselves we can find common ground. But when it comes to the processes, I’m not confident that we can influence what the outcome will be.”
Baker expressed concerns and questions in the meeting about the funders of the Dialogues and key players in the BDCP, and suggested that the dialogues needed to have such people in the room to be valuable. In an email to the dialogues’ storyteller and participants after the meeting, he wrote: “Should the funders of this process (Delta Dialogues), and those wielding power in the planning of BDCP (I’m talking about the ability to move lines on a map), continue to find themselves absent from these discussions, as will I.”
Dialogues participants said they intended to meet monthly. During the intervening seven months, participants had found funding for six months of gatherings – half of the planned Phase 2. Facilitators said they were training Campbell Ingram and Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy so they could lead sessions themselves in the future.