June 26th, 2012

June Delta Dialogues: We’re Eating Steak Now


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.

May 31st, 2012

May Delta Dialogues: Back, and to the Future


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.