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.


September 12th, 2012

The Fruit of the Dialogues?


In the fifth in-person session of the Delta Dialogues, participants took bites of fruit, took stock of the Dialogues themselves, and took control of the process, outlining goals for future conversations.

After a morning site visit to North Delta farms, where pears were inspected and grapes sampled, the participants spent much of the afternoon of August 24 reviewing their work to date, including a detailed review of a “model map” — a compilation and distillation of the Dialogue Maps that have charted the Dialogues to date.

The conversation in Clarksburg was friendly and blunt, and participants seemed more assertive than they had in previous sessions. The participants changed the direction of the meeting at a couple points, and articulated critical questions for future Dialogues, suggesting the Dialogues continue past their scheduled conclusion in late October.

The conversation was enriched by what facilitators called the best mix of stakeholder participation to date, with representation from agriculture, fisheries, stage and federal agencies, local government, environmental groups, and recreation.

The afternoon talk also was well framed by the morning tour, which included frank exchanges between North Delta farmers and Dialogues participants, some of whom have been involved in litigation against each other. (At one point, Doug Hemly, the president of Greene & Hemly, as he gave the tour, asked for a show of hands of people involved in litigation against him.) The farmers, as they showed off pears, apples, grapes, and packing houses, complained about the uncertainty created by the current state of the Delta and the plans for it, including the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). They also expressed fears that they would feel most of the impacts of water conveyance while benefits of the changes would be elsewhere. In response, some participants suggested that the farmers’ fears were overblown and that they could benefit. People on both sides of the discussion said they appreciated seeing “Ground Zero” — North Delta sites where a water conveyance system could be built.

Throughout the day, the participants’ strong sense of ownership of the Dialogues process was clear. But so were strong divisions among the group over various issues, most notably the BDCP.

In-Delta interests criticized the BDCP and previous Delta efforts for not including them and their ideas in the development of plans. Other participants disputed that, saying that the in-Delta interests had not responded to invitations to join the BDCP process and that the ideas of such interests were not always relevant or useful.

The argument continued from there. In-Delta interests responded that the outcome of the BDCP, from their viewpoint, was pre-determined — to build tunnels for water conveyance — and so participation in the BDCP would have required agreeing to a conclusion with which they could not agree. Other stakeholders, in turn, said that such views were mistaken, and that environmental reviews, lawsuits and the BDCP process offered plenty of opportunities to change the process and the outcome — if in-Delta interests could be successfully engaged.

The multiple exchanges on the BDCP and water conveyance did not get deeply into details. Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy pointed this out, and argued that the Dialogues, with their stated goal of shared understanding, provided an opportunity to flesh out details and define terms.

He outlined three questions the Dialogues could answer:

  1. What would constitute being “at the table” for in-Delta interests?
  2. Once “being at the table” was defined,” how could in-Delta interests be brought to the table?
  3. If those first two questions could be answered, how could the dialogues “export” those answers to other stakeholders and to the public so that it could shape future work on Delta questions?

To push things forward, participants discussed taking a particular issue — habitat was raised — and trying to dig deeply into that as part of a path to shared understanding. Several participants also indicated the current process, which is scheduled to conclude in late October, does not offer enough time to do this. The possibility of a second phase of the Dialogues, to follow shortly after the current process, was discussed briefly at the meeting, and at more length in an August 31 call.

“I’d say we made good progress today, but we also hit some pretty good barriers,” said Dick Pool, representing commercial and recreational fishing, at the meeting’s conclusion. “And I’d say we’re going to need a continuation of the process.”

NOTE: The writer of this post was absent from the August dialogues, and based this account on video and audio recordings of the meeting and tour, and on conversations with participants.