March 17th, 2014

Will the Delta Dialogues Send a Message?


The Delta Dialogues entered a period of change with its February gathering, as the facilitation team departed and participants summed up their work and accomplishments in preparation for writing a letter to state leaders and the public.Map Button

The change in the Delta Dialogues was apparent from the first minute of the February gathering, at Conaway Ranch in Woodland. Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy stood at the front of the room, instead of facilitators Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin, who sat to either side. campbellThis would be the last meeting for the facilitators, because the funding to support their work has expired. The dialogues, Ingram explained, would continue along under the direction of the participants themselves.
“We are in transition,” Ingram said.

That introduction set up a daylong meeting during which the participants, representing a diverse group of stakeholders, took stock of the dialogues’ work so far, discussed how to tell the public about that work, and proposed questions to carry the Dialogues into the future.

“I think this is a valuable process and I hope it continues,” said Delta landowner Tom Zuckerman. “Personally why I think it’s valuable is that it does include Delta voices and most of the other conversations that are going on do not.”

“What the Delta Dialogues has gone through in the last year and a half that’s very important in my mind is just proving that we can talk to each other in a civil manner,” said Leo Winternitz, who recently retired from the Nature Conservancy.

houseAfter Ingram facilitated the first hour of the Dialogues – a preview of what he said would be three more meetings in the months to come — he turned the floor back over to Cobble. She then led an exercise in which participants used post-it notes to answer seven questions arrayed on easels around the room.
Those questions – and those post-it note/answers – were designed to assess the extent to which participants, after two years of meetings, had made progress and found common ground. The questions and answers, participants said, were to inform a letter from Dialogues participants that would be drafted in March and sent to state leaders and the public.

At the beginning of the second phase of the Dialogues last spring, participants had set the goal of communicating the work of the Dialogues to the public, with the goal of influencing public knowledge and ongoing policymaking. But there has been no official communication between the Dialogues and the public. A letter – which the participants said would show how the participants had built trust and communicated well, and exported what they learned and agreed upon as a group – would fill that void.

participantsAs they discussed the letter, discussion focused on the fourth of seven questions: Where has common ground been found among the participants?

The answer involved the value of a process like the Dialogues, that includes diverse stakeholders, including those excluded from other processes, and that has ground rules designed to encourage listening, thinking, and conversations that produced deeper, shared understanding.

The common ground included broad agreement that questions still need to be considered around the possibility of including hybrid conveyance with an intake in the Western Delta. The interest in the Western Delta was related to the shared understanding that there is a need for physical assurances in the Delta, in part because the trust of stakeholders – from Delta residents to water contractors – had been broken in the past when promised projects and benefits failed to materialize.

shared understandingOther points on which participants had found common ground, by their own account: the need for the improvement of the Delta ecosystem, the risks of silver bullet and “mega” solutions; that compromise and collaboration are needed; and that trying to envision a future Delta could be the path to more common ground.

It wasn’t clear if the letter would be signed or exactly what form it would take. (Your storyteller was asked to help draft it). Steve Chappell of Suisun Resource Conservation worried aloud that a letter like this could pose risks for participants representing state agencies and perhaps other participants as well. “We have to remember the political risk for not advocating for your group in the letter,” he said.

stickiesModerator Kristin Cobble, Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, and Paul Helliker of DWR also had an exchange over whether the letter should include calls for more transparency. Helliker said that he didn’t understand the objection to BDCP’s transparency – given all the many different versions of the BDCP documents that have been publicly released and the hundreds of public meetings held throughout the Delta and elsewhere. Piepho countered that the mass of material was hard to navigate, and Cobble pointedly said in response that transparency had to be married with participation by stakeholders.

Assessments of the process were positive, though facilitator Conklin, in his concluding remarks, criticized himself for three “failures”. 1. The fact that the work done in the dialogues had not gotten out and noticed in the legislature and to the public. 2. The lack of continuity in the group, as participants came and went through Phase 2, and the resulting difficulties with continuity. 3. The inability to get the most of dialogue mapping process that mapped the conversations throughout the meetings.

birdsAttendance was an issue for the February meeting. There were no Delta farmers or exporters, in part because some were called away to an emergency meeting on the drought.

The participants also made a list of topics and questions for more study as the Dialogues continue—questions that ranged from porous levees and the possibilities of a West Delta intake, to questions of overall water supply, to the management of groundwater. One line of questions involved how to reconfigure the BDCP to provide physical assurances to stakeholders, reduce the impact of conveyance on the North Delta, and provide sufficient flow for fish and people.