November 13th, 2013

Into the Matrix


Taking what felt like a deep breath after tough recent meetings in Sacramento-area offices, the Delta Dialogues and its participants returned to the outdoors and to a discussion of alternatives to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan conveyance proposals during their October session.Map Button

The daylong gathering at Rush Ranch, in Suisun Marsh, was among the best-attended sessions of the dialogues, with representatives from every stakeholder in attendance. Jerry Meral, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, also attended and participated in the meetings.

“I’m happy to be in the marsh. It’s a lot closer to home, back in the natural world,” said Carl Wilcox of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife early in the meeting. Delta landowner Tom Zuckerman, noting the fall harvest and presence of ducks and geese in the Delta, said he felt optimism, and not just because the time of the year. “I sense the discussion is beginning to open up at long last,” he said, adding that in-Delta stakeholders are beginning to have their concerns heard in debates about the future of the Delta.

The conversation again centered on possible alternatives to the BDCP conveyance, especially the possibilities of multi-intake scenarios that could involve the Western Delta, and the discussion was often difficult, technical and frustrating. John Cain of American Rivers and Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District complained at different points in the day that time was being wasted.

To help things along, facilitator Kristin Cobble, who returned to the dialogues after missing the September session, handed out a picture of a rabbit disappearing down a hole to each participant, and instructed participants to wave the pictures above their heads if the conversation was “going down a rabbit hole.” The rabbits were employed only a handful of times.

The facilitation team also spent considerable time reviewing the rules and practices of the dialogues. In this year’s second phase of the dialogues, nearly half of the participants are new additions who did not participate in last year’s first phase, and facilitators and participants have said it’s important to “strengthen the container” – the metaphor they often use for the dialogues as a contained, safe space where difficult issues can be discussed and understandings reached.

Newer participants were asked to point to their favorite place on the Delta on a map, and in one exercise, all participants were asked to identify things the group had in common.

“We all want to protect the Delta,” was the first.
“We all go to a lot of meetings,” was the second.

After that container-building, the day broke down into four sections.

1. In the late morning, Gwen Buchholz offered a presentation and answered questions about the various alternatives to the conveyance alignments in the BDCP. She described a painstaking multi-year, EIR/EIS process (it took over a year to develop screening criteria, she said) that started in 2008 and is still ongoing. It did boil down many ideas to 15 conveyance alignment alternatives. Find a description of the process here, then an initial screening of alternatives here, and a secondary screening here.

She noted the complexity; it had taken her four hours, she said, to boil down the 200-page appendix explaining the process into a presentation. Despite all the things considered, participants asked about whether variations on some of the alternatives had been considered, or whether combinations of alternatives had been considered. The answer in some cases was no, with Buchholz noting that not every conceivable alternative could be studied and that she and colleagues in other agencies had relied heavily on public comments in the process. They had to answer questions they were asked, she said.

One takeaway from the presentation and conversation was that two tests were crucial to screening alternatives. If the fish agencies said that an alternative wouldn’t work for species, it didn’t have a chance. And if contractors said an alternative wouldn’t work economically, it wouldn’t have a chance either.

Several participants, including Meral, emphasized that the alternatives conversation was important and was continuing. If there’s something better that meets the variety of tests necessary for conveyance, it could be useful. Paul Helliker of state DWR said that viable alternatives could come up late in the process.

2. Following from this conversation, the conversation entered the matrix. Literally, facilitators in collaboration with Cain and Chris Knopp of the Delta Stewardship Council had created a matrix for evaluating and understanding three conveyance possibilities – status quo, the current BDCP proposal, and a multi-intake alternative – on a variety of criteria and questions. The matrix filled two large boards on either side of the screen upon which the conversation was being mapped.

But they only managed to fill in one column of squares on the big matrix. The conversation was detailed, but participants struggled to define terms and decide questions. Several complications were introduced into the process, involving the differences between wet and dry years, and the ability to draw more water in storms.

The conversation was detailed, and full of information, but also frustrating. “I think it’s been great,” said Peltier as they broke for a late lunch. “We are all well meaning and informed, and we can’t even agree on what the questions are.”

Forty minutes were allotted for lunch, but the group decided to go for a walk into the marsh, and it took more than an hour.

Upon their return, Cobble, the facilitator, relayed a conversation she’d had with Meral during lunch, and posed three questions he had raised:

1. What is the largest physical facility in Western Delta that In Delta stakeholders could support?
2. Can In Delta stakeholders live with any North Delta diversion at all?
3. Can the facility be permitted by the fisheries agencies, and would the water contractors be willing to finance it?

The two in-Delta interests — North Delta farmer Russell Van Loben Sels and Zuckerman – both said it was possible to conceive of plans and operations that could be supported, though it would not be easy and the details would be crucial. Van Loben Sels said it was important that any alternatives make as little change and have as little impact as possible. Zuckerman emphasized the importance of having a “firm linkage” between “new dry period yield” of water north of any diversion facility and the operation of such a facility.

Wilcox noted that Western Delta intake could hurt Delta smelt. Pressed on whether there was any chance that a Western Delta intake could pass muster given the presence of smelt and other fish and the velocity of water, he answered: “Very small. Less than 2 percent.”

That precipitated a conversation, including Wilcox, about how to find out more about the impact of a Western Delta diversion. That led in turn to conversation about arranging a meeting or phone call, involving some participants and non-participants, including federal fisheries agencies, to look at the Western option (including impact on fish, questions about where facilities can be located and their size) before the next Delta Dialogues session on Nov. 15.

In closing, facilitators asked two questions: what was most valuable about the day’s discussion? And what question do you most want answered or explored on Nov. 15? In response, members talked about various questions around alternatives, though participants suggested that they needed to come together on specific, simpler questions to drive more productive discussion.