September 4th, 2013

Forging Common Ground

Category: August 2013 Meeting

In their August gathering, Delta Dialogues grappled with how and whether they might be able to affect Delta management and planning processes, including the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the State Water Board.

Near the end of the intense, day long conversation that departed from the agenda and included only one brief break for lunch, the participants discussed the possibility of developing their own alternative proposal for conveyance that could better meet the needs of all Delta interests.Map Button

No decisions were made, but the conversation among the stakeholders — representing agriculture, the fish industry, environmental groups, state agencies, local governments, and water agencies — was more detailed than any so far in the two-phase process, which started in early 2012. “I am glad we are getting down to the nitty gritty,” said Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, near the meeting’s conclusion.

The meeting seemed to leave the dialogues, which were begun to forge shared understanding among stakeholders in the Delta, at a dramatic point, with the real possibility that participants might seek to come together to develop their own proposals for the Delta.

Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, noted that there is great uncertainty about the BDCP, and how and whether water contractors and state and federal agencies will support it. “They have spent $200 million and it is 7 years later,” said Winternitz, who then urged the dialogues group to get involved. “But if there is something else that can be proposed that significantly reduces their costs, and provides for most of the objectives they need to achieve, and provides for conservation, we should be brave and put something out there.”

Most of the morning was devoted to conversation about conveyance, with facilitator Kristin Cobble introducing participants to “the Ladder of Inference”, a model of the steps, or missteps, we often take when we think. When we have disagreements in conversations, she explained, it is often because we have previously selected the data we think is most important to pay attention to, made assumptions about that data, drawn conclusions from those assumptions, and taken actions that make us keep selecting our data too narrowly. She encouraged participants to “come down their ladders” by sharing and testing their data and assumptions.

The conversation was defined by van Loben Sels, the Delta farmer, and a detailed case he made for the virtues of using the Delta itself as means of conveying water, instead of constructing expensive tunnels around or under the Delta. “The facility to move water is already there — a/k/a the Delta,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be built, you don’t disrupt the whole region, all that disruption goes away, a lot less expensive, could be accomplished more quickly, and has much broader support.” He suggested engineering changes within the Delta could protect fish and habitat.

But he was challenged by other participants, who argued, in different ways, that through-Delta conveyance was essentially the broken status quo. Carl Wilcox of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife said: “The reason we are looking at changing the way water is conveyed is because the way it is done now doesn’t work.”

Randall Neudeck of the Metropolitan Water District said his agency would love to save billions on building conveyance, but experience has shown – and government agencies have made plain – that a through-Delta solution doesn’t work. John Cain of American Rivers, helped articulate a detailed list of all the problems with through-Delta conveyance – from fish protection to the stability of the Delta and its levees to the quality of water going through the Delta. Van Loben Sels countered that he and in-Delta interests share those goals, but believed that conveyance would simply add new problems without resolving the issues.

That exchange didn’t settle the question, but it did show that different participants had similar goals. And it represented a step forward for the dialogues; in previous sessions, in-Delta interests had been wary of discussing conveyance and the BDCP directly for fear of giving them too much legitimacy. But this direct conversation seemed to unleash even more detailed conversations later in the afternoon, including the possibility of the group developing its own proposal.

“I don’t think we are that far apart,” said Van Loben Sels. “It’s a matter of how we do it and how much.” He said that if a proposal were to be developed, “if we are going to take that step, we have to talk about what goes out of the delta in the form of exports and the form of outflow.”

Cain, of American Rivers, seemed to seize on that comment, by suggesting a hybrid proposal of conveyance. Cain suggested that such a proposal would need four elements, plus a governance structure. Those four were:

1. Specifics on how much water would come into the Delta. Cain noted that the BDCP has not tried to change that amount at all.

2. Specifics on how the water that comes into the Delta is allocated between outflow and exports. if outflow is maintained, water quality is maintained.

3. How such an allocation can be physically accomplished through conveyance. This could include physically separating water considered outflow and water that’s exported.

4. Understanding the short and long-term impacts of conveyance infrastructure and associated habitat restoration on Delta communities and land use.

Participants expressed interest in such a proposal, but no decision was made.

And the interest in going forward was tempered by skepticism in the room about whether the BDCP and other processes are too far along – and also too constrained – to be deeply influenced. But, despite wide views about the efficacy of alternatives, each of the stakeholders indicated there would be value in discussing alternatives.

Cain called the next six months “critical” and said there was an opportunity for the dialogues to influence BDCP and other Delta processes. Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy noted that California Department of Fish and Wildlife director Charlton Bonham had said at a recent state senate hearing that he wanted to find a way to engage in-Delta interests in the BDCP, especially around governance. Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho said she wanted to find a way for the in-Delta interests to influence plans.

“We are not against a project specifically,” she said. “We don’t like BDCP in its current size. We aren’t saying go away, we are saying the Delta needs help. We need to preserve and protect the Delta first.”

Such willingness to discuss change and alternatives was echoed among BDCP backers among the participants. Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District said, “I recognize that BDCP is not a solution to all the water problems in California. It is one piece of the entire puzzle.”

Dale Hoffman-Floerke of the state Department of Water Resources noted that the BDCP had announced changes in its conveyance plans – and that change should send a message that the state wants to be adaptable and responsive to concerns of residents people in the Delta. “We are not done tweaking there,” she said. “We continue to look for additional opportunities to reduce impacts; I expect additional changes will occur in the future. There is a lot we can do, will do.” (Hoffman-Floerke also announced that she would be retiring from the state; her replacement in the Delta Dialogues will be DWR deputy director Paul Helliker).

Delta farmers in the room expressed skepticism about those recent changes in conveyance proposals. “I think the governor still has tunnel vision,” said Bruce Blodgett. But they also emphasized that the status quo was not acceptable and that they were willing to participate in identifying alternative solutions to the various Delta issues, including conveyance.

The constraints and difficulties of the Delta issues were brought into relief by discussion among participants and by a lunchtime presentation the group received from Les Grober of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Grober explained that the board’s Bay-Delta Plan will change with or without BDCP, and that the board is studying multiple alternatives, depending on how and whether BDCP goes forward. He emphasized that the board’s Bay-Delta Plan will include flexibility and adaptive management. In answer to a question from San Joaquin County Supervisor Ken Vogel about how there could be trust since standards on southern Delta salinity are not currently being met, Grober said trust was essential.

“In the past the Bay-Delta Plan has anticipated construction of infrastructures that never got built. That is why the current Plan update will consider the standards needed both with and without infrastructure like the BDCP. There has to be more than one way of achieving the standards,” he said, adding, “There has to be some trust in the system regarding real time decisions being made and trust in the board. The Bay-Delta Plan should do better than lock us into one number that we have to stick with in light of new information and changing conditions.”

After conversation and questions for nearly two hours, Grober said he’d like to formally join the dialogues.