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May Delta Dialogues: Back, and to the Future

by | May 31st, 2012

What was the agenda of last Friday’s session of the Delta Dialogues?

Time travel. The destination was the future. The transport machine was built from imagination and optimism.

“Imagine that it’s May 25, 2040,” a facilitator of the Dialogues asked. “Imagine where you might be. Imagine that you and the people in this room and the people outside the room somehow manage to do the impossible, make decisions, and create a healthy, thriving Delta.”

With that, the dozen Dialogues participants in attendance — representing agriculture, local government, water contractors, state agencies, federal government, urban water users, and the environmental community — were asked this question: What does a healthy, thriving Delta look like in 2040?

By framing the conversation this way, facilitators said they wanted to put the dialogues on a stronger path to the kind of shared understanding that is so difficult in today’s Delta. As Jason Peltier of the Westlands Water District said during the meeting, “One of the challenges we have here is we have so much knowledge about the delta, so much data, but so little common understanding.”

But might there be common understanding if the conversation took place in the future?

Participants first jotted down their visions of the 2040 Delta. Then they shared them with a fellow participant, then with the entire body. Participants spoke in the present tense, as though they were in 2040.

The emphasis of each participant’s vision varied, from the water levels to the amount of recreation use. But what emerged — during a sharing of visions that was noted in real time on a screen via a tool called Dialogue Mapping — were remarkably similar visions of the future. (There also was a strongly shared gratitude that all the participants were still alive in 2040).

The biggest common thread in these visions of the future was a Delta of great variety. Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy imagined having just finished a 12-mile bike ride after some time water skiing, in a Delta with agriculture, wetlands, native vegetation, fruit stands with local produce, and great fishing.

Participants also offered similar visions around improved water quality, the strong presence of agriculture, and smarter Delta governance that would be at once more coherent and centralized (everything from state management to United Nations management was suggested) and also more fluid and adaptable to changing conditions.

The visions also shared a strong sentiment that science, technology, and data would drive decisions and allow stakeholders in the Delta to be smarter and more efficient in fulfilling needs.

There were more specific differences over issues such as dredging (some participants thought it would be a thing of the past by 2040, while others saw it as part of the future) and on questions of diverting water. Late in the session, facilitators asked participants to imagine what actions taken between the years 2012 and 2017 would lead to their 2040 visions. The conversation didn’t get very far before time ran out. Facilitators closed the meeting by asking participants to keep pondering these questions and to write in their journals — provided as part of the Dialogues — as thoughts occur.

After three previous meetings that set up the Dialogues, May’s session felt like a step forward into specific issues and content. One facilitator said that while previous meetings had involved “making the stew” and “creating the container” for the dialogues, this session would see the start of the cooking.

Participants expressed a mix of emotions during the session. Many noted the quality of the conversation, but others worried about its prospects and about the particulars of the session. John Cain, conservation director at American Rivers, said he would like to see more people who live in the Delta: “I’m disappointed more local stakeholders aren’t present.” Other participants, in response, noted that three participants had been unexpectedly unable to attend, two because of deaths of close ones or colleagues.

Most of the participants in the May session came early to tour the McCormack-Williamson tract in two big white vans. Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, which owns the island, explained the group’s plans to restore the original marshland.

Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, pressed Winternitz repeatedly on whether the Nature Conservancy had considered the full economic impact that restoration — by taking productive farmland out of service — would have on people who work the fields, service the farms, sell insurance to farms, and depend on county tax revenues, which would be impacted by the change. The friendly, spirited exchange between the two men continued throughout the tour, and seemed to shape the broad conversation in the formal session.

At lunch after the tour but before the meeting, participants marveled at the size, peacefulness, and cleanliness of the Delta. Participants praised every aspect of the tour (save the driving of the Delta Conservancy’s Campbell Ingram, who piloted one of the two vans), and resolved to have more tours before future meetings.

The next Dialogue was set for June 15.

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