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June Delta Dialogues: We’re Eating Steak Now

by | June 26th, 2012

The first two Delta Dialogues meetings, in April and in May, set the table for a detailed conversation about the Delta’s future.

At the third meeting, on June 15, the steak was finally served. Literally.

Over three intense hours on the wood-paneled second floor of Peter’s Steak House in Isleton, participants chewed over a host of complicated issues, with a particular focus on levees and habitat restoration.

This launch into specifics felt like the end of the beginning for the dialogues. And the session ended with the group outlining a plan for detailed, follow-up work on key issues — alleviating misinformation, levee protection, complications of habitat restoration, trust building, and governance — at an extended, day-long Dialogue meeting on July 27.

“This is the most positive conversation I get to enjoy,” said Jason Peltier of the Westlands Water District. “So much of what we communicate about relative to the Delta is conflict-based, but here we are so constructive, so common in our interests. Sure we disagree, but no one is disagreeable.”

The conversation was framed by a two-hour tour of Bouldin Island levees led by Gilbert Cosio of MBK Engineers. Cosio showed the group four different spots on a levee that is in the process of being strengthened.

The tour, on a windy day, illustrated the complicated nature of levee design, the variety of conditions of the levees, and the delicacy of levee repair. Cosio made two points that seemed to resonate with those on the tour and that were referred to several times during the subsequent afternoon meeting.

First, he noted how slow, careful, and deliberate one must be in rebuilding a levee. Levees move (in one Stockton project, the peat in a levee moved three feet overnight and 13 feet in the course of the project, he said), and changes in levees, even improvements, can be dangerous in the short-term to the levee. In the Delta, everything has ripple effects.

Second, he recounted the history of levees and, in particular, promises that were made 50 years ago that the State Water Project would include the rebuilding of the Delta’s levees. It didn’t happen.

“The way the Delta people see it, they never got what they were promised,” said Cosio.

Russell van Loben Sels, a Dialogues participant and North Delta Farmer who was on the tour, nodded and added: “There are a lot of things in the Delta that have not happened the way they were supposed to.”

Those two, related ideas — that the Delta is more complicated and interrelated than generally thought, and that today’s Delta efforts are undermined by the broken promises of the past — served to propel the Dialogue discussion that afternoon.

That session started with follow-up discussion about the tour and levee issues. Cosio said that many recent reports on levee failure were based on old knowledge and failed to account for hundreds of millions of dollars of levee work since 2005. The conversation soon pivoted from levees to habitat restoration, as participants noted that, as in levees, habitat restoration must be done with the recognition that a small change in one part of the Delta can affect people elsewhere. This part of the conversation brought the sharpest exchange of the dialogues so far — between Brett Baker, a fish biologist and farmer whose family has lived in the Delta for six generations, and Carl Wilcox of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Wilcox made the point that levees are crucial for protecting habitat, as well as agriculture. He mentioned the habitat restoration at Liberty Island as a potential model for how to do this in the Delta.

Baker objected, arguing that the example of one island shouldn’t be extrapolated to the rest of the system. After some back and forth, Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy broke in to say there was common ground between them: that the habitat questions were complex, that there’s been very little habitat restoration, and that there needed to be more dialogue before any progress could be made on the issue. Van Loben Sels then made a similar point. The exchange served to propel the conversation forward, as participants talked about specific areas and questions that were misunderstood and needed more dialogue.

At one point, the participants gathered around a Dialogue Map, blown up and posted on the wall, that listed all the visions of the Delta’s future — specifically in 2040 — that participants had offered at the previous May meeting. Participants were given small green and red stickers, in the shape of dots. They were asked to put their green dots near visions they agreed with and red dots near those with which they had trouble.

Several said they found it hard to place the red dots. Participants ended up putting red dots mostly near visions that they thought were less than pragmatic. (“No net loss of agricultural land” drew a red dot because the idea that there could be “no net loss of anything” seemed unrealistic. Notions that the Delta should be able to manage itself also drew red dots, because of a consensus that the Delta’s complex systems require management). Green dots were placed by several participants near calls for better infrastructure, more integrated planning in the Delta, strong agricultural presence, and the idea of a X-prize style competition for ideas that improve the Delta.

The latter part of the discussion exposed a potential tension between big and small visions of Delta change that could surface in future discussions.

The participants tended to agree that doing even a small thing in the Delta has impact on many other parts of the Delta, forcing discussions and planning to be broader and bigger. But the participants also agreed that attempting to do many things at once creates logjams and runs up against the lack of trust that is the product of historic broken promises in the Delta.

How will the participants reconcile the need to be broad and inclusive, while also being small and targeted?

Stay tuned.

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New Approaches to Habitat Restoration

by | July 24th, 2012

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.

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When All You Have Is a Role of Duct Tape

by | July 3rd, 2012

Nancy Ullrey works for the Delta Conservancy and  is a Delta Dialogues participant.

In one dramatic scene from the movie, Apollo 13, NASA engineers threw a boxful of incongruous materials — including a roll of duct tape — onto a table. The materials represented what the astronauts had available in their capsule to repair their air filter so they could survive the remaining hours of their return to Earth. It was a scene fraught with tension, urgency, cooperation, creativity, and focused teamwork.

I was reminded of that scene at the June Delta Dialogues meeting. The same sense of tension, urgency, and cooperation underlay the conversation as the group began to address their differing perspectives of what needs to happen — or not happen — in the Delta, and the impacts of any action in the Delta. Throughout the conversation were the glimmering threads of creativity, waiting for that moment when the focused teamwork of the group will weave those threads together into the strong fabric of understanding that will enfold everyone there. Out of that fabric can come finely crafted agreements tailored to the needs and interests of the Delta and its stakeholders.

As I listen to the other participants talk about their hopes and concerns about the Dialogues, it is that sense of creativity and focused teamwork that comes to my mind. Everyone there shares an interest in a healthy, productive Delta — whatever that means to each — and like those NASA engineers, one day we’ll be throwing out the boxful of materials to get the Delta safely “home.” I’m just not sure if duct tape will be used.