June 5th, 2013

The Delta Dialogues Are Back, and Better

Category: May 2013 Meeting

“I’m still pissed off,” quipped Jason Peltier.

The room laughed. For this was the beginning of the first meeting of the second phase of the Delta Dialogues, and the tone of Peltier, the chief deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which hosted this gathering, was light-hearted.

The dialogues were getting back together again.

Dialogue participants had been talking (and even met to plan a second phase in February), but it had been seven months since the last official meeting of the dialogues, last October in Fisherman’s Wharf. But it was clear that the group – representing a diverse array of Delta interests (agriculture, state agencies, the federal government, local government, fishing, environmentalists) – remained comfortable with each other. The conversation was erupted by laughter more than 30 times. At one point, Peltier presented Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels, also of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, with a gift: a framed photo and story of President John F. Kennedy speaking at a dedication for the San Luis Dam and Reservoir west of Los Banos.

“Things do not happen,” Kennedy said, according to the account. “They are made to happen.”

A similar spirit, and a bit of impatience, infused the meeting, as the advantages of the lasting comfort between the participants were made clear. All the comfort seemed to create more space for conflict – and detailed conversations – than in any previous Delta Dialogues gathering.

A failure to get into the difficult details and conflict in the Delta  – “into the heat,” in the phrase favored by facilitator Kristin Cobble of Groupaya– had been one shared frustration of the first phase. The Phase 1 conversations had built relationships and trust among the participants, but not enough to surmount some of the wariness participants had about conducting frank conversations with people whom they had been fighting (and in some cases suing) for decades.

But this time, the group jumped right in. Facilitators’ questions about trusted sources of information on the Delta and about Chapter 7 of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan prompted such detailed exchanges that facilitators had to break in repeatedly to slow them down.

“I’m going to interrupt,” Cobble said at one point. “We’ve started having a conversation about the criteria for good governance. And it’s happening in reaction to the BDCP proposal.”

The exchange appeared to establish the question of governance – and how to build a better governance regime for and around the Delta – as the central question of Phase 2. Chapter 7 of the BDCP consists of 30 pages of governance. Few words of praise were said about the particulars, with even those who participated in its drafting emphasizing that it could be changed and improved.

The participants listed and discussed what they wanted to see in a governance plan. Seven principles were discussed. Governance should be transparent, be fair and balance different interests in the Delta, provide meaningful representation for in-Delta interests, especially local governments and farmers that have felt excluded, work incrementally, deter litigation, encourage participation, and create an environment for building relationships.

In a couple of key moments, the exchange suggested that government agencies and water contractors could build a governance set-up that could satisfy Delta agriculture and local governments. An agricultural stakeholder indicated that a truly balanced governance system could provide reassurance about some aspects of the BDCP, and a state official said there could be changes to give much more of a role in governance to agriculture and in-Delta interests.

Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District indicated that the meeting had helped to expand his thinking about an alternative Delta proposal championed by people in the Delta through the Delta Counties Coalition. “I came in thinking the DCC proposal was really out to lunch,” he said. “But now as I listen here, I think there are ways to fold in the Delta interests that might make sense.”

As evidence of the quality of conversation, in closing check outs, the participants said they were encouraged by each other’s statements.

The participants and facilitators also spent considerable time during the six-hour meeting (which included only a brief lunch break) defining the goals and focus of Phase 2 – mostly in opposition to Phase 1. Using a flip chart, Phase 1 was defined as creating shared understanding and strong internal dynamics between the dialogues participants. In Phase 2, participants said they wanted to produce a work product that could make an external impact and be published. The participants and facilitators discussed how the maps of the discussion, which are filled out in real time in front of the participants as they talk, could become a published document; in Phase 1, they had been used more as a note taking method.

“I’m very grateful that people took the opportunity today to jump in the pool,” said Leo Winternitz of the Nature Conservancy, who had been vocal in Phase 1 about the need for more detailed conversation. “And I’m grateful to you guys for making sure there was water in the pool.”

The first meeting of Phase 2 also included two new participants in the dialogues, who appeared to warm to the conversation as the day went on. Steve Chappell, executive director of the Suisun Resource Conservation, began the day striking a skeptical note about “lofty goals” and “global discussions” in the context of a Delta where big change is often unattainable. Chris Knopp, executive officer of the Delta Stewardship Council, expressed similar skepticism.

But after a long day of conversation, they were optimistic in their closing comments, with Knopp calling the discussion “very enlightening” and said it had “opened up some thoughts on how to make some improvements” in how stakeholders participate in the implementation of the Delta Plan.

The session seemed to raise expectations for the second phase. Facilitator Jeff Conklin told the group that “everything in my life has been preparing to work on a problem … that is this huge, where the stakes are this high.”

But the optimism about what the dialogues participants might accomplish was tempered by pessimism about what could be accomplished outside the room, particularly given the BDCP and other processes for remaking the Delta. Brett Baker, a farmer and dialogues participant, said: “I have a great confidence that amongst ourselves we can find common ground. But when it comes to the processes, I’m not confident that we can influence what the outcome will be.”

Baker expressed concerns and questions in the meeting about the funders of the Dialogues and key players in the BDCP, and suggested that the dialogues needed to have such people in the room to be valuable. In an email to the dialogues’ storyteller and participants after the meeting, he wrote: “Should the funders of this process (Delta Dialogues), and those wielding power in the planning of BDCP (I’m talking about the ability to move lines on a map), continue to find themselves absent from these discussions, as will I.”

Dialogues participants said they intended to meet monthly. During the intervening seven months, participants had found funding for six months of gatherings – half of the planned Phase 2. Facilitators said they were training Campbell Ingram and Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy so they could lead sessions themselves in the future.


February 21st, 2013

Delta Dialogues in the News


DD Panel Discussion

Although the Delta Dialogues have been in hiatus, it doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy. On February 6, 2013, the Delta Dialogues was featured in a panel discussion entitled “Is Peace Possible In the Delta Water Wars?” at the UC Center in Sacramento. Panelists were Jason Peltier, Dale Hoffman-Floerke, Russell van Loben Sels, and Gilbert Cosio. Joe Mathews, who usually writes on this blog, was the moderator.

About 150 people attended the hour long panel discussion. Daniel Weintraub, from HealthyCal.org, wrote a nice summary at their website, here.

February 6th, 2013

Delta Dialogues Final Report Now Available


Delta Dialogues Phase 1 Story CoverFrom May through October 2012, our intrepid storyteller, Joe Mathews, blogged about the first phase of the Delta Dialogues right here, as it happened. Since then, Joe has been interviewing participants, doing research, and fleshing out the story. The result is this wonderful, cohesive account of the whole process, made visually stunning by designer, Amy Wu. It’s a free download, so please share it widely, and let us know what you think in the comments below!

January 17th, 2013

Is Peace Possible in the Delta Water Wars?



On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, several of our Delta Dialogues participants (Jason Peltier, Dale Hoffman-Floerke, Gilbert Cosio, and Russell van Loben Sels) will be telling the story of our process in a panel discussion hosted by the UC Center in Sacramento and moderated by our storyteller, Joe Mathews.

Is Peace Possible in the Delta Water Wars?
February 6, 2013, 12:00-1:30pm
UC Center Sacramento, 1130 K St.

Free event. Lunch provided.

The conventional wisdom is that change in the Delta will come slowly, or not at all. Too much conflict. Too many stakeholders. Too many competing interests. All that litigation. But over the last year, a group of stakeholders in the Delta — representing a wide range of interests including agriculture, fisheries, environmental NGOs, local government, water agencies, levees, state and federal agencies — engaged in a novel process, the Delta Dialogues, in an attempt to come together. It wasn’t a negotiation, but an intense, facilitated conversation — with real-time mapping of the dialogue — with the goal of coming to a shared understanding of the Delta’s problems, and potential ways forward. They began these Delta Dialogues not trusting one another, but by the end, things had changed. Four dialogues participants — Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District, Dale Hoffman-Floerke of the State Department of Water Resources, Gilbert Cosio of MBK Engineers, and Russell van Loben Sels of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau — visit the UC Center to discuss what happened and whether the dialogues point a way to peace and progress in the Delta wars. (Moderated by Joe Mathews, Zócalo Public Square).

You can register at the UC Center website. Please spread the word! Looking forward to seeing many of you there.

November 11th, 2012

Aboard the Wacky Jacky, Destination Unknown

Category: October Meeting
Tags: ,

Phase 1 of the Delta Dialogues wrapped up on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, with a briefing tour by commercial fishermen, a wild salmon lunch, and a fast-paced afternoon of conversation.

The conversation among participants shifted between the difficult daily lives of salmon fishermen and unanimous pledges from participants in attendance to continue the dialogues into a second phase — a phase for which there is as yet no funding.

The afternoon Dialogues, at the Aquarium of the Bay, were built around a detailed summing up of the process, as participants went back through the Dialogue Maps from the six months of the process. Those interactive maps, viewed together, represented a living document of the process, showing shared understanding in three broad areas: about the legacy of broken promises in the Delta, the complexity of the numerous stressors for the Delta, and the need for greater improvement and inclusion in existing Delta planning processes.

The participants added to those maps thoughts from one last exercise in which they were asked to post yellow notes on a wall upon which they had written answer to the question: What do we need to do to better meet stakeholders needs with current conveyance over the next 15 years?

The answers were wide-ranging and could frame future discussions: Improve water flow for species in the Delta, restore habitat (starting with experiments), continue trust building, understanding interests / getting to yes, more science and adaptive management, get better, improve water supply reliability, improve water quality, deal with additional stressors make hard decisions, and create spaces in Delta governance where everyone has a voice.

Based on a show of hands, the participants voted to focus this last meeting of Phase 1 on trust building. The detailed conversation included a provocative suggestion from Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy that the Delta needed a process something like the truth and reconciliation process after the troubles in Northern Ireland — a way to deal fully and forthrightly with the past, and move forward together so Delta stakeholders can verify what they’re doing, and its effects.

The discussion followed a morning-long field trip — including a stop on the sport fishing boat Wacky Jacky — that participants called powerful. Fishermen who work in the Bay and Delta described the decline of their industry. The pain is not merely financial; fisherman Larry Collins said he had seen friends and colleagues disappear, and in at least one case commit suicide because of the decline of fishing.

One point of emphasis: the fishing industry had been willing to accept less to protect fish and water — including shutting down the California salmon fishing in recent years — but other interests that affect the Delta and fishing had been unwilling to sacrifice for the long-term greater good.

The fishermen also described in detail how they work — catching one fish at a time under California rules — and shared stories (especially about the evils of sea lions — “fur bags” because they eat lots of the salmon that the fishermen want to catch).

Participants, as they recounted the conversation with fishermen, described one regret about the field trip: that Dialogues participants from agriculture and the water agencies were unable to attend because they were traveling.

Facilitator Kristin Cobble of Groupaya concluded the meeting by reminding the participants, “You have built relationships. You have built trust. Now you are ready to be bold together. If you can be bold together, you will see results.”

Participants pledged to support a continuation of the dialogues, though their ambitions varied. Some said they hoped the dialogues could be a forum for developing practical solutions and deals to the Delta’s real problems. Others indicated they liked to preserve the dialogues as a “safe space” or “safe container” for conversations that could not be had in more formal settings and in the official planning processes within the Delta. Some suggested that both could be part of the dialogues future.

Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy said he felt that the spirit and work of the Delta should infuse those planning processes. “The sentiment at the table going around is very, very different than the BDCP table or the Delta Stewardship Council. I want to bring more of this into these processes.” Ingram added that “as the issues get more contentious, there’s a more solid foundation to get into the issues” in future conversations.

When and where those conversations will take place was uncertain.

October 24th, 2012

About that Chart: Embracing the Reality of How We Learn


The green-line/red-line chart that Joe Mathews referred to in his summary of the September meeting is based on published cognitive science research done in the 1980s. I’ve sketched it in thousands of courses and presentations and I’m always struck by the response.

First, people recognize that the green line really does depict the “seismic” process that individuals or groups go through when dealing with a complex and novel problem.

Second, they also recognize that they have been acting as if the red line, not the green line, was how things worked. It’s a lovely moment to behold, like that moment of truth in the Hans Christian Anderson story when the child points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

We need more of these moments, when a trance of social collusion in a myth is broken, and people are freed to trust their experience over proclamations from an authority. It’s good news, this freedom, except of course for the duped Emperor and his obliging court… and their proclamations!

After all, the red line can be managed. It lets you predict the time and money required to get to the solution, and manage the process to stay on schedule and budget. Much of the field of project management is founded on the illusion of the red line, with its orderly cascade from being presented with a new project to the ribbon cutting ceremony.

The green line, of course, is a force of chaos that managers know well, for they are skilled in suppressing that uncontrollable green line process. When the chaos can’t be suppressed, managers use another important skill: Telling a red-line story about the process (aka “status reports”), reinforcing the illusion that the red line really is the way things work.

The main problem with managing from a red-line perspective is that the chaos depicted by the green line is also known as “learning,” and it thus represents the emotional roller coaster familiar to anyone these days who is cursed to be working in a group on a “wicked problem.”

Countless hours are spent in meetings that go nowhere, and that, because of this lack of traction, must be repeated endlessly. There are always “bad stakeholders” who refuse to play by the rules of the game, and who have enough power to sabotage the implementation of the solution, if not the planning process itself. And just when a viable solution is in sight, some new stakeholder shows up and declares (without any gratitude for the hard work done by the other stakeholders to date) that the whole premise of the project is deeply flawed — that “the real issue is” some new factor that the project team has been avoiding. And so the planning process must be rebooted.

These are all symptoms of the process of being forced to wade into the swamp of possible solutions with a group of diverse stakeholders that doesn’t yet understand what the “real problem” is. Such is the territory of contending with problems that involve many stakeholders, have been around for a long time, and are steeped in immense technical and scientific complexity, aka wicked problems. There are no experts who’ve solved similar problems before, or who have the proven process that can guide the project directly to a robust solution. (Those were the days!)

Sure, it’s possible to create and follow a red-line cascade of steps from problem definition to robust solution. It happens all the time with tame problems. The red line is thus a depiction of already knowing, and if the problem you’re working on submits to a linear, red line set of steps to arrive at its solution, then lucky you!

You must resist the temptation, however, of “taming” a problem by artificially narrowing its scope to fit the circumstances, or by excluding stakeholders from your planning process because they’re likely to be unruly. For a professional to do so is unethical (hence the term wicked problem), and never ends well. Many of the most spectacular project failures in the past few decades took the low road of taming a wicked problem. And many times the results of such shortcuts just exacerbate the problem, making it that much harder to address effectively.

These Delta Dialogues are rooted in a new approach to planning, a highly inclusive approach that accepts the green line as essential, because it represents the learning process, and because it leads to shared understanding among the stakeholders, something more valuable and enduring than a mere “solution” to the Delta’s problems.

October 17th, 2012

“I Was Thinking the Same Thing”


After six months of meetings and phone calls throughout this first phase of the Delta Dialogues, how much shared understanding is there?

The late September Dialogues meeting offered a test of just that question, in the form of an extended exercise.

When participants in the Delta Dialogues arrived at the Delta Conservancy’s offices in West Sacramento, eight easels were standing around the room, with big blank sheets of paper on each. Soon, representatives of eight different interests — fish and recreation, water users, agriculture, Delta levees, state/federal water agencies, state/federal regulatory agencies, NGOs/environmental, and local government — were asked to pick a board and make two lists. First, name your top three needs in a plan for the Delta that includes conveyance. Second, name your three biggest concerns.

After they’d done this, the different interests were asked to look at each other’s boards. Then, they affixed stickers of different colors to the needs and concerns of others. A green dot was placed next to concerns or needs that they had predicted. A red dot showed that they hadn’t expected that interest to have that need or concern. A blue dot conveyed a lack of understanding.

As each interest read and discussed and posted stickers next to the needs and concerns of others, the room filled with the smiles of expectations met — and some pleasant surprises. They understood each other in most cases. And, when the expressed concerns and needs of others were different than they expected, the surprise lay in the fact that there was so much agreement.

“It was refreshing,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, once the exercise was over. “Others are thinking the way I’m thinking.”

“We found out that we may have said things differently,” said Dick Pool, representing the commercial and recreational fishing industries, “but we were saying the same thing.”

After that, John Cain of American Rivers deadpanned: “I was thinking the same thing.”

The most surprising need, expressed by state and federal water agencies, was their need for the least disruptive solutions in the Delta that enhance the Delta “as a place” with a strong economic, agriculture, recreation and other things. The stakeholders present also were surprised by water users’ expressed need that a conveyance system be compatible with existing activities and ecosystem functions, including fishing and farming.

Surveying the room, facilitator Kristin Cobble whispered to her colleagues, Eugene Kim and Jeff Conklin, “We have a lot of shared understanding here.”

The demonstration of shared understanding and the detailed discussion that began during the exercise and continued through the meeting left some participants saying it was the strongest meeting so far. Several indicated that they wanted to move into more detailed conversations around what one called “shared solutions.”

In the afternoon, the discussion jumped between specifics and broader conversation about how to move forward with the conversation in the most productive way. Conklin drafted a jagged line on a graph — “like a seismograph,” he noted — to explain the chaotic, difficult sorts of conversation that go into the weeds, but are in fact the way that human beings talk when they learn and address wicked problems.

Such a jagged line is different than the traditional problem-solving process of gathering and analyzing data and focusing on a problem for a long time before formulating a solution. That may sound good or simple, but problem-solving doesn’t work like that, Conklin said. What really should happen in efforts to address complex problems is that participants go back and forth between the problem and potential solutions over and over again in a process that, if mapped, looks like the jagged line.

Some participants said they thought the group got along well enough that they could take the jagged path by addressing more difficult issues and even courting disagreement.

The September meeting also included a new addition to the dialogues: Tom Zuckerman. A Delta landowner who has had a variety of different roles, Zuckerman had been identified as a leader in the Delta in one of the monthly phone calls that have been part of the process. He said he had “been through lots of processes. I’m getting old with a limited amount of energy and time.” He said he wanted to “watch and listen” to the meeting before signing on.

The final meeting of this first phase of the Dialogues is scheduled for October 26.


October 12th, 2012

Our Participants Describe What They’ve Learned


As the first phase of the Delta Dialogues draws to a close (our final meeting is at the end of this month), we asked our participants to explain what this process was all about, what they learned, what the impact might be, and why we should continue this experiment. Here’s a five-minute video compilation of what some of them said:

Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, we think it’s essential that this process continue. We’re working on designing the next phase of the Delta Dialogues to extend this work for another year. If you have thoughts, please share them in the comments below. Stay tuned.

Many thanks to Matt Sengbusch for creating this video.

September 17th, 2012

A Phase 2 for the Delta Dialogues?


The first phase of the Delta Dialogues consists of five calls and seven monthly in-person meetings, the last of which is scheduled for October 26.

What will come next?

It’s unclear. But participants in the Dialogues have begun discussing a second phase of the process. The desire to go forward was expressed forcefully near the end of the August 24 meeting, when participants said they needed more time to build the shared understanding that is the goal of the dialogues.

It also was the topic of a call among participants the afternoon of August 31. Among the suggestions for Phase 2 were more field trips to important parts of the Delta, so participants can see the places and issues they’re talking about; community workshops that “export” the Dialogues outside the participants; and longer in-person meetings, perhaps even meetings that went beyond just one day.

Participants and facilitators are already working on plans for Phase 2, and are preparing to apply for funding. They seem to be casting a wide net. One of the Dialogues’ facilitators, Eugene Eric Kim of Groupaya, even asked your storyteller’s opinion about Phase 2 on a late-night phone call.

My own answer: Mostly more building along the same lines of dialogue we’ve seen so far. But there are three new things I’d like to see in a Phase 2 of the process.

  1. The first is the presence of some of the researchers and scientists who study the Delta. But I don’t want them there just to study the Dialogues. As we’ve seen throughout the Dialogues, researchers and scientists from places like the Public Policy Institute of California have played a big role in shaping perception of the Delta. And there has been real concern expressed in the process about whether research on the Delta is up to date or whether it is a contributor to misunderstanding in the dialogues. In an important way, the scientific community working in the Delta is a Delta stakeholder. I’d like to see them present and part of the conversation.
  2. The second is that I’d like to see if the Dialogues could find a way to permit journalists other than just me to observe the process, while protecting the ability of participants to speaker freely.
  3. The third is that I’d like to see more detailed discussion of specific solutions to the problem. This is not to say that the Dialogues will produce solutions. But as Dialogues’ facilitator Jeff Conklin explains in his book Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, the act of searching for a solution is how human beings come to shared understanding of problems. So let’s see stakeholders get into the weeds: How should habitat be restored in the Delta in a way that meets the needs of the various Delta stakeholders? What’s the best path forward to levee protection? How can the needs of water users be met without hurting farmers and fish?

My thoughts, of course, are only suggestions. But as the plans are being put together, now is a good time to offer your ideas if you have them — by contacting participants and facilitators, or by offering them directly on this site.

September 13th, 2012

When seeing is hearing new understandings arise


The adage “Seeing is believing” got flipped for me the other day as I read the dialogue maps from the August 2012 meeting held at the Old Sugar Mill; reading the maps became an experience of “seeing is hearing” for me. Let me explain.

Dialogue mapping captures the concepts of a conversation in a way that keeps intact the context and connections of what is said. Other commitments prevented me from attending the August meeting, and I wanted to get a sense of what happened. Reading through two maps in particular I finally heard something I had not heard before (which is not to imply it had not been said before).  The experience was not of just reading a fact or a statement, but of actually hearing—as in understanding a little bit better—different aspects of an issue.

Here are the two statements that struck me:

“Delta believes there’s need for conveyance. Just a question of how to do it. We get all the impact, they get all the benefits” (from What can we build shared understanding around?)

“Delta interests would have to come up with a coherent set of asks” (from How can we bring in-Delta interests to the table?)

In all the meetings I have attended over the years, I do not recall hearing so clearly these two points: what benefit from the other processes could come to the Delta residents and what is it that the Delta residents want from the other processes. I felt excited about my “ah-ha” moment.

These two statements seemed to me to be like two sides of the same coin; a coin that is minted in openness and willingness to learn and that can be spent in developing mutually satisfying outcomes. These two statements, taken together, invite the Delta Dialogue participants to explore more fully.  I think such a conversation will lead to better understanding and better options to manage the complex situation in the Delta.

This “ah-ha” experience confirmed for me the benefit of dialogue mapping as a means of communicating and building shared understanding.