October 9th, 2013

Are the Delta Dialogues Stuck?


It looked and sounded that way at September’s gathering of the process that involves a diverse array of stakeholders from around the Delta. After a year and a half of sessions that participants had called productive, the September session left participants frustrated and questioning the process.Map Button

The daylong gathering at the Delta Conservancy included testy exchanges, early departures by a handful of stakeholders, side conversations while others were speaking, the failure of participants to stick to the agenda, and difficulties and miscommunications among the facilitation team.

For the first time in the 18-month-old process, one participant, declined to say anything during “check in” process that starts each meeting, a simple, often lighthearted exercise in which participants are asked to say a few words about how they’re feeling as the meeting begins.

The group spent much of the time debating what they wanted to talk about – water supply? Conveyance? Undoing constraints in the system? A sequenced approach to the BDCP? Management of water? A Western Delta diversion, perhaps with a permeable levee?

This tug of war over the agenda represented a reversal from the previous meeting in August, when the group seemed to have agreed to look at hybrid alternatives to the BDCP conveyance plans.

The battle over the agenda did in fact touch on many of these alternatives, but as they jumped between technical details and other subjects, the conversation came at an unusually rapid speed for a dialogues process that often is slowed so that the statements of participants can be mapped on a screen. Participants frequently interrupted each other. The resulting conversation was scattered, and facilitators struggled to map it.

By meeting’s end, participants seemed frustrated and beaten down. “I think we need to shake it up,” said Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District, suggesting a return to field trips into the Delta that were a staple of the process’ first phase in 2012.

“I’m a little discouraged,” said Dick Pool, representing the commercial and recreational fishing industries. “I thought we might make more progress.”

“Today’s discussion was a little frustrating,” added Russell van Loben Sels of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau.

But participants said they remain committed to the Dialogues, and wanted to continue to find ways to continue the Dialogues and examine alternatives to the current conveyance and BDCP plans – both to achieve shared understanding and perhaps suggest changes to existing plans.

“I think it’s in our interest to find a path through this,” said Chris Knopp, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council. I’d like for us to consider where we want to be, what we’d like to do to get there, how we will get there from here. Right now this is too free flowing for me.”

John Cain of American Rivers said that there weren’t alternative venues to bring forward changes. “This is a crazy endeavor,” he said of the Dialogues. “The alternative to not doing this is not good at all. Even though this was not as fruitful a day as I would have hoped, what are the alternatives?”

Facilitator Jeff Conklin told the group that, at the end of the August meeting (see “Forging Common Ground“), it appeared that the group had reached “a critical transition,” where there was enough trust to talk about the messy details of conveyance and alternatives. In September, he said, that conversation “happened, but it wasn’t full of the balloons and whistles that I thought might come of it… It was a drill down into the contested points of view.” At the end of the meeting, he noted that polarization had come out and thanked the group for its persistence.

One factor appeared to be the number of relatively new arrivals to the Dialogues among the participants. Seven of the 17 were either new or had not participated in last year’s Phase 1, when the group built trust and relationships with the goal of permitting difficult conversations.

At September’s gathering, much of the conversation consisted of longtime participants trying to slow down conversation and explain to newer participants how the dialogues worked. But the participants had little help from a facilitation team that was short lead facilitator Kristin Cobble; Cobble and Conklin had previously facilitated the meetings together, but the two had agreed to begin alternating, with one facilitating and the other skipping the meeting, in order to save money and permit Dialogues meetings to continue longer, into next year. (The Dialogues, through the conservancy, are seeking funding for more work and meetings in the future).

Carl Wilcox of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife stood out for striking a rare positive note at the end, saying that the conversation about an alternative diversion in the West Delta, in combination with a smaller North Delta diversion, had given him hope about the conversations.

“Certainly I will be talking to Randall and John and others about how that might work,” he said, saying that analysis could generate relevant information for BDCP. “I am somewhat encouraged,” he said.

The session prompted facilitators to do some deep self-examination, and scramble to re-examine the Dialogues and their plans. They said that, in the days after the September session, they would reach out to participants personally.

The Dialogues appeared headed toward some kind of shake up. But the nature of the shake-up was unclear.