July 24th, 2012

New Approaches to Habitat Restoration

Category: June Meeting

The Delta Dialogues are designed to get stakeholders engaged in constructive dialogue. And such dialogue doesn’t have to be limited to the regularly scheduled meetings and phone calls.

I participated in one such “outside” dialogue this past Wednesday afternoon. Based on the conversation about habitat at our June 15 Dialogues gathering, Carl Wilcox took the initiative and initiated additional discussion with some Dialogues participants. Carl’s idea was to take some people out in the field and think about what the opportunities are in the Delta on the habitat issue.

So last Wednesday, July 13, Carl met with Brett Baker, Russell van Loben Sels, Leo Winternitz, Mike Tucker of NOAA Fisheries, and myself at the head of Steamboat Slough.

We spread maps across the top of a pick-up truck and stood there for 45-50 minutes talking about habitat opportunities and constraints in the north Delta.

There were three main issues we discussed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we achieved consensus, but here are the three big things we hashed out.

1. Setback levees.

There was a mutual recognition — just by looking at maps and by sitting there and talking about the reality of the Delta on the ground — about the islands and the waterways in and around Steamboat Slough and nearby islands that are part of proposals for habitat restoration. Particularly as it relates to setback levees.

In the past, there has been discussion of doing setback levees — pulling back the levees from the waterway and providing more flood plain habitat on the water side for fish.

What we realized through this discussion Wednesday was that if you look at any one of those islands, the levee ring about the island is the high ground. And it is precisely on this high ground that you see a ring of high-value agriculture with permanent crops as well as the homes, the barns, and the supporting businesses of the farms. The lower, sometimes wetter land – with lower-value row crops – is in the center of the islands.

Given this geography, the six of us recognized the concept of setback levees might not be viable in this area, because it would affect the most valuable agriculture and infrastructure near the levees. Therefore there would likely be very little interest on the part of farmers in setting back levees, and if some were interested, the costs to move roads, houses and businesses, and compensate for permanent crops maybe prohibitive. As a result of this discussion, we explored other possibilities for how you’d enhance the habitat value without setback levees.

2. Eminent domain.

The second outcome of the conversation had to do with the open question of eminent domain. Specifically, we talked about the expectation that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, in order to do habitat restoration on a large scale, might use eminent domain to achieve their habitat goals.

Both the stewardship council and the Delta Conservancy have said they aren’t going to use eminent domain. But the BDCP has not backed away entirely – they’ve said they don’t think it will be necessary, but they have not ruled it out.

A point that came out in our discussion at Steamboat Slough — a point made particularly well by Russell — is that if the BDCP would back away and come out with a definitive statement that it would not use eminent domain, farmers might be willing to have more of a dialogue about habitat restoration opportunities in the Delta. Right now, farmers feel threatened by the possibility of eminent domain, so dialogue is not possible.

3. A new approach to restoration that protects high-value land.

Regarding those islands in the North Delta that have that characteristic high land around the levee and deeper land in the center, we discussed the idea that good design might provide opportunity for compromise.

Specifically: If you could — through good design — create connectivity between the river and tidal wetlands located on the lower-value agricultural land in the center of some delta islands — thereby preserving the higher value agriculture and infrastructure on the higher elevation rings of the island — there might be more opportunity for partnership around restoration.

This would be a slightly different concept than we’ve seen before. Right now, habitat restoration is built around the strategy of buying big chunks of these islands — and buying out landowners over time. That requires dealing with lots of landowners, and it means you wait a long time. Valuable agricultural land and infrastructure can be degraded in the process. With this different concept, you could compensate farmers for the loss of their lower value agriculture, protect high-value agriculture, and do habitat restoration in a faster, and possibly less costly fashion.

Beyond all these specifics, what was great about our gathering at Steamboat Slough was that everyone recognized the value of incorporating local knowledge into what’s being proposed for the Delta. When stakeholders in the Delta get into a real dialogue, we can bring a dose of reality to some of the concepts that have been out here for a long time.

That’s the point of the Delta Dialogue. I look forward to talking more about this at the next meeting.

July 20th, 2012

How will we address BDCP in the next meeting?

Category: July Meeting

I wanted to offer a short note about the next Delta Dialogues meeting on July 27 — in light of the significant announcement we anticipate next Wednesday, July 25, regarding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

While most of our discussions in the Dialogues have been linked to issues addressed in the BDCP, we have not yet had direct, specific conversation in the Dialogues about BDCP. It seems logical that this should now change. Indeed, our meeting on July 27 provides an opportunity for a discussion around what the July 25 announcement contains.

The Dialogues are currently the only forum that provides a broad representation of Delta stakeholders and a safe space for constructive dialogue. Given this special environment, we anticipate a fair amount of time being devoted to the BDCP during the meeting on the 27th.

April 24th, 2012

Introducing the Delta Dialogues


Why are we doing the Delta Dialogues?

I consider myself fortunate to get to work on the Delta. This unique place and ecosystem are not only the backbone of the California water supply, but also a wonderfully rich natural and cultural heritage for California and a really great place to spend time out of Sacramento.

Unfortunately the stressors on the Delta are many. And to date our attempts to address those stressors, and ensure California has a stable, secure water supply while restoring this critical ecosystem, have been immensely challenging.

The purpose of the Delta Dialogues is to bring all of the stakeholders who care about the future of the Delta in to the same room for a different type of conversation. It’s not about winning or losing, who did what to whom, or creating yet another plan. The Delta Dialogues are a forum for a truly inclusive and diverse set of stakeholders in the Delta to listen, build shared understanding, discuss the “why” not just the “what” of the matter,  and build new trusted relationships. In short, the purpose is to have meaningful conversations that could inform and catalyze a new type of shared understanding, and in the long term action, around the future of the Delta.

Who will be the participants?

The Conservancy’s issue-based dialogue allows traditional stakeholders (water purveyors, state and federal agencies), in-Delta residents (farmers, local governments), and other non-governmental organizations (recreational associations, environmental organizations) to talk about what really matters to them.

How many participants will there be?

Our aim is to be truly inclusive of all the Delta stakeholders. This is not meant to be another closed door meeting. For the purposes of enabling truly transformative dialogue, and ensuring we have the consistent participation necessary to build trusted relationships, we are kicking off this process with 20 people representing all of the above interests.

What is the purpose of the storytelling blog?

In order to expand the room without expanding the number of people in it, we will be periodically sharing updates from the Delta Dialogue here on this blog.

The process of aligning around and implementing a collaborative framework for managing the scarce resources and competing interests of the Delta will take years, perhaps decades. But the situation is urgent. The Delta will not wait for a business-as-usual approach.  Future efforts not based on robust shared understanding and shared commitment among stakeholders with competing interests will not be decisive or effective. It will simply lead to more deadlock, as it has for decades.

It is our humble ambition that the Delta Dialogues can help us move beyond business-as-usual and towards a new understanding, and future for the Delta.

-Campbell Ingram

Executive Officer, the Delta Conservancy