February 10th, 2014

Will the Drought Bring Us Together, Or Distract Us?

Category: January 2014 Meeting

The bad news – and a little good news – from California’s drought dominated discussion between participants during the January meeting of the Delta Dialogues.

The participants, representing diverse stakeholders (state agencies, water agencies, the fishing industry, agriculture, environmental NGOs) and gathering at a waste water treatment plant in Elk Grove, seemed to agree that California needs more tools to make decisions during drought emergencies like the one declared in January. “We don’t have very good mechanisms for doing things on the fly,” said Carl Wilcox of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

CarlParticipants saw opportunity – but also peril – in using the drought as the basis for spurring work on long-term solutions in the Delta. “I see this as a big distraction from the long term,” said John Cain of American Rivers.

The January Delta Dialogues was the penultimate meeting for the facilitation team from Cognexus and Groupaya that has worked with the dialogues since its beginnings in early 2012. (Funding to pay the facilitators is set to run out after the February meeting). Beginning in March, dialogue participants and Delta Conservancy director Campbell Ingram will take charge of it. To that end, facilitator Kristin Cobble said she tried to give the meeting “more structure” as preparation for the stakeholders to assume full responsibility for running the meeting.

KristinCobble began by establishing a baseline of different participant points of view and looking for commonality. Her questions were: what is your biggest concern about the drought? And what should the Delta Dialogues and the entire state be doing to address it?

The specific concerns differed among the stakeholders. Environmentalists expressed worries that their work would be rolled back because of drought, and endangered species would be blamed for water shortages. Farmers expressed fear that interest groups would use the moment to advance their causes. State agency officials and water agencies expressed confusion and uncertainty—there just isn’t enough water right now to meet all the various regulatory obligations—with one participant asking, “Which standards do we violate?” And water agencies said that adjusting to a drought of these proportions will be difficult because so much has changed – in terms of population and cultivation – since the last such drought more than 35 years ago.

Les“We are so far out of the box,’ said Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District, “we don’t know how to grok it.”

The one saving grace, several participants said, is that the drought also has become a shared concern with the potential to bring interests together. “While we fight over water a lot, it’s crises that pull people together and will bring out the best in people,” said Peltier.

Added Cain: “You know you’re in a bad place when you have to count on Jason for uplifting news.”

Some participants suggested that the drought might create conditions for a broader water policy discussion, and near the meeting’s end they enthusiastically imagined having what they called a “Big Eraser” conversation. What constraints could be erased to improve the Delta and make the California water system work better?

Jim“How do we develop a shared responsibility of going forward together, in terms of how do we meaningfully deal with the uncertainty of our climate?” asked Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Valley Water District late in the meeting.

Said Nancy Ullrey of the Delta Conservancy: “Everybody’s in the same boat of not knowing what to do; what’s next. For me, that’s valuable as the source of creative tension; you’re in a situation where you about ready to explore and explode into some really creative ideas.”

Throughout the meeting, participants discussed, in a variety of ways, how difficult it is to make a decision – any decision – in the Delta. Wilcox talked about the water rights system: “It’s a huge constraint on how we manage water in the state and where resources go.”

“How can we make decisions?” asked Peltier. “I am more convinced today we won’t be able to make a decision on BDCP, we –the government, water agencies. We won’t be able to make a decision in the time we are expecting. We will be out of resources, out of money, we can’t make that decision.”

Leo“Somebody has to make a decision… We have to have a better way of decision-making and building more confidence,” Fiedler said.

Tom Zuckerman, a Delta landowner, suggested that a “war room” be set up “where everybody who is involved can reach a decision. That’s what clearly needs to be done,” particularly given the complicated regulatory climate.

Zuckerman said that given all the difficulties, he’d like to “put 100 percent of my energies” into focusing on areas in which the stakeholders can agree – and then work to make decisions. He said he represented a third generation in the Delta that had been “arguing about everything” and was tired of it.

Nancy and Russell Near the meeting’s end, participants were asked by Cobble, the facilitator: “as a result of today’s conversation, ‘What do I wish my own stakeholder group understood better?’” Participants gave similar answers – that there wasn’t an appreciation of the complexity of the circumstances, and that stakeholders drew lines (no new storage for environmentalists, no North Delta conveyance for Delta farmers) without understanding that there are nuances and that such things could be workable in the right circumstances.

The question seemed to inspire conversations about having a “Big Eraser” dialogue that would put everything on the table.

When Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy questioned whether one response would be “the pre-1914 water rights holders coming and saying, ‘Put the eraser down!’” Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels replied: “Well, I’m one of those, Campbell, but nobody wins, nobody’s gonna come out of this thing, if we all sit back and say, ‘My position is sacrosanct and yours is impossible!’”

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