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.

August 6th, 2012

Dialoguing on the BDCP


The Delta Dialogues took a hard turn into a big, newsy controversy in July, with a day-long gathering devoted to discussion of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and how its recent announcement should affect the future of the Dialogues.

The turn came at the fourth monthly session of the dialogues, at the Westlands Water District offices on the Capitol Mall in Sacramento that came two days after the BDCP press conference hosted by the state and federal governments. The turn was intentional, with facilitators of the Dialogues framing the session around the BDCP as a way of pushing the Dialogues more deeply into specifics. “We want to go into the fire,” Kristin Cobble, one of the facilitators with Groupaya, told the group early in the day. “We want to go where the lightning rod is provoking us.”

And so they did, for more than five hours, a session that produced some of the most difficult and enlightening conversations of the Dialogues. The tone remained civil, but the exchanges were frank and the differences seemed stark for the first time in a process that has emphasized what the participants have in common.

Participants from the environmental community and water users acknowledged that they supported the BDCP process, while others were more critical, with some questioning whether it was designed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion: The building of a conveyance to bring water from north to south via tunnels. Mary Piepho, a Contra Costa County supervisor, said the BDCP was “not a balanced, thorough proposal. Not comprehensive enough. It doesn’t include local government at the table or water storage components. It lacks a thorough cost benefit analysis and only one project alternative is being analyzed.”

State agency officials are part of the Dialogues, but none attended this meeting. Some participants raised questions about that absence, but no explanation for their absence was discussed.

Despite different opinions about the BDCP, some key points of agreement emerged. Participants agreed that there were deep fears about the BDCP process, and that those fears remained a huge obstacle to making progress in the Delta. (The room was divided on whether those fears were based on real risks or were more a byproduct of mistrust based on previous broken promises about Delta policies.) Participants agreed that the status quo was unacceptable, and that they were willing to make concessions in the name of progress.

One strong criticism of the BDCP also emerged, both from those sympathetic to the plan and those critical of it — that the BDCP process had not been sufficiently inclusive of “in-Delta” constituencies, particularly local governments and farmers. As a result, the recommendations were not as complete as participants would have liked.

Jim Fiedler of the Santa Clara Water District said the problem stemmed from the BDCP’s focus on its “co-equal goals” — ecosystem restoration and water supply — to the exclusion of the people in the Delta. Leo Winternitz of The Nature Conservancy said he had felt “elation” from the BDCP’s commitment to restoring the Delta environment, but “disappointment” because “there was no strong similar commitment to protecting the Delta quality of life.”

The conversation felt disjointed at times. During the middle of the day, facilitators attempted to use the BDCP conversation to leap into a more difficult, specific conversation that would look at the details involved in creating a new method of governance for the Delta. This push occasioned puzzled looks from participants, and facilitators retreated.

The conversation also seemed to miss North Delta farmer Russell van Loben Sels, who was ill. He sent along an email that was critical of BDCP and that was discussed for nearly half an hour. His name was mentioned more times than that any other participant, despite his absence.

In the afternoon, the conversation turned to determining how the Dialogues should go forward in light of BDCP. Should the Dialogues focus on misinformation and areas of disagreement about the facts of the Delta? Or should the focus be on how in-Delta interests don’t have trust in BDCP and other processes, and what would make them trust?

Through the discussion, it became clear that the questions were related. And, in a curious way, one area of agreement emerged: A shared feeling of mistrust. Multiple participants recalled broken promises related to the Delta. Given that history, participants said, as the meeting concluded, that they valued the opportunity the Dialogues provide for open conversation, even over controversial subjects.

In an email chain that followed up the meeting, participants said they would like to keep the momentum and have more follow-up conversations before the next regularly scheduled Dialogue gathering (August 24).

August 3rd, 2012

Dialogue Map of the July BDCP Recommendations


Last week, Governor Jerry Brown announced joint recommendations from state and federal agencies regarding key elements of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).

In order to help facilitate discussion around these recommendations at our Delta Dialogue meeting last Friday, we took the 55-page document and created a Dialogue Map version. Dialogue Mapping is a process of capturing complex issues in real-time as participants talk. It is both a powerful technique for visually representing complex issues as well as for building shared understanding among a group around wicked problems.

You can see our Dialogue Map version of the recommendations below (best viewed in full-screen mode), or you can download a PDF version for printing. Leave a comment below if you have any feedback or questions about the maps, and feel free to share!

Bdcp recommendations-2012-07-16 from RebeccaPetzel.

July 24th, 2012

New Approaches to Habitat Restoration

Category: June Meeting

The Delta Dialogues are designed to get stakeholders engaged in constructive dialogue. And such dialogue doesn’t have to be limited to the regularly scheduled meetings and phone calls.

I participated in one such “outside” dialogue this past Wednesday afternoon. Based on the conversation about habitat at our June 15 Dialogues gathering, Carl Wilcox took the initiative and initiated additional discussion with some Dialogues participants. Carl’s idea was to take some people out in the field and think about what the opportunities are in the Delta on the habitat issue.

So last Wednesday, July 13, Carl met with Brett Baker, Russell van Loben Sels, Leo Winternitz, Mike Tucker of NOAA Fisheries, and myself at the head of Steamboat Slough.

We spread maps across the top of a pick-up truck and stood there for 45-50 minutes talking about habitat opportunities and constraints in the north Delta.

There were three main issues we discussed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we achieved consensus, but here are the three big things we hashed out.

1. Setback levees.

There was a mutual recognition — just by looking at maps and by sitting there and talking about the reality of the Delta on the ground — about the islands and the waterways in and around Steamboat Slough and nearby islands that are part of proposals for habitat restoration. Particularly as it relates to setback levees.

In the past, there has been discussion of doing setback levees — pulling back the levees from the waterway and providing more flood plain habitat on the water side for fish.

What we realized through this discussion Wednesday was that if you look at any one of those islands, the levee ring about the island is the high ground. And it is precisely on this high ground that you see a ring of high-value agriculture with permanent crops as well as the homes, the barns, and the supporting businesses of the farms. The lower, sometimes wetter land – with lower-value row crops – is in the center of the islands.

Given this geography, the six of us recognized the concept of setback levees might not be viable in this area, because it would affect the most valuable agriculture and infrastructure near the levees. Therefore there would likely be very little interest on the part of farmers in setting back levees, and if some were interested, the costs to move roads, houses and businesses, and compensate for permanent crops maybe prohibitive. As a result of this discussion, we explored other possibilities for how you’d enhance the habitat value without setback levees.

2. Eminent domain.

The second outcome of the conversation had to do with the open question of eminent domain. Specifically, we talked about the expectation that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, in order to do habitat restoration on a large scale, might use eminent domain to achieve their habitat goals.

Both the stewardship council and the Delta Conservancy have said they aren’t going to use eminent domain. But the BDCP has not backed away entirely – they’ve said they don’t think it will be necessary, but they have not ruled it out.

A point that came out in our discussion at Steamboat Slough — a point made particularly well by Russell — is that if the BDCP would back away and come out with a definitive statement that it would not use eminent domain, farmers might be willing to have more of a dialogue about habitat restoration opportunities in the Delta. Right now, farmers feel threatened by the possibility of eminent domain, so dialogue is not possible.

3. A new approach to restoration that protects high-value land.

Regarding those islands in the North Delta that have that characteristic high land around the levee and deeper land in the center, we discussed the idea that good design might provide opportunity for compromise.

Specifically: If you could — through good design — create connectivity between the river and tidal wetlands located on the lower-value agricultural land in the center of some delta islands — thereby preserving the higher value agriculture and infrastructure on the higher elevation rings of the island — there might be more opportunity for partnership around restoration.

This would be a slightly different concept than we’ve seen before. Right now, habitat restoration is built around the strategy of buying big chunks of these islands — and buying out landowners over time. That requires dealing with lots of landowners, and it means you wait a long time. Valuable agricultural land and infrastructure can be degraded in the process. With this different concept, you could compensate farmers for the loss of their lower value agriculture, protect high-value agriculture, and do habitat restoration in a faster, and possibly less costly fashion.

Beyond all these specifics, what was great about our gathering at Steamboat Slough was that everyone recognized the value of incorporating local knowledge into what’s being proposed for the Delta. When stakeholders in the Delta get into a real dialogue, we can bring a dose of reality to some of the concepts that have been out here for a long time.

That’s the point of the Delta Dialogue. I look forward to talking more about this at the next meeting.

July 20th, 2012

How will we address BDCP in the next meeting?

Category: July Meeting

I wanted to offer a short note about the next Delta Dialogues meeting on July 27 — in light of the significant announcement we anticipate next Wednesday, July 25, regarding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

While most of our discussions in the Dialogues have been linked to issues addressed in the BDCP, we have not yet had direct, specific conversation in the Dialogues about BDCP. It seems logical that this should now change. Indeed, our meeting on July 27 provides an opportunity for a discussion around what the July 25 announcement contains.

The Dialogues are currently the only forum that provides a broad representation of Delta stakeholders and a safe space for constructive dialogue. Given this special environment, we anticipate a fair amount of time being devoted to the BDCP during the meeting on the 27th.

July 3rd, 2012

When All You Have Is a Role of Duct Tape

Category: June Meeting

Nancy Ullrey works for the Delta Conservancy and  is a Delta Dialogues participant.

In one dramatic scene from the movie, Apollo 13, NASA engineers threw a boxful of incongruous materials — including a roll of duct tape — onto a table. The materials represented what the astronauts had available in their capsule to repair their air filter so they could survive the remaining hours of their return to Earth. It was a scene fraught with tension, urgency, cooperation, creativity, and focused teamwork.

I was reminded of that scene at the June Delta Dialogues meeting. The same sense of tension, urgency, and cooperation underlay the conversation as the group began to address their differing perspectives of what needs to happen — or not happen — in the Delta, and the impacts of any action in the Delta. Throughout the conversation were the glimmering threads of creativity, waiting for that moment when the focused teamwork of the group will weave those threads together into the strong fabric of understanding that will enfold everyone there. Out of that fabric can come finely crafted agreements tailored to the needs and interests of the Delta and its stakeholders.

As I listen to the other participants talk about their hopes and concerns about the Dialogues, it is that sense of creativity and focused teamwork that comes to my mind. Everyone there shares an interest in a healthy, productive Delta — whatever that means to each — and like those NASA engineers, one day we’ll be throwing out the boxful of materials to get the Delta safely “home.” I’m just not sure if duct tape will be used.

June 27th, 2012

Why I’m Participating


Russell van Loben Sels is a North Delta farmer and is a Delta Dialogues participant.

Delta Dialogues establishes a forum for discussions related to achieving the co-equal goals of a more reliable water supply for California and restoration of the Delta ecosystem in a manner that protects and enhances the Delta as a place — truly a “wicked problem” without easy solutions. Currently, processes that will have tremendous impact upon the Delta economy, its people and ecosystem are advancing. When these processes recognize and provide for the Delta’s needs, progress on the coequal goals will be achievable. Delta Dialogues can be a powerful tool to attain understanding, and from that understanding, will effect direction and progress.

At each of our meetings, I have learned something new and remain hopeful that our shared knowledge will result in solutions which advance the coequal goals in a manner that truly protects and enhances the Delta as a place. In order to accomplish these goals, we will all need to be prepared to modify our positions and the reasoning and understanding that support them.

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.

May 23rd, 2012

Why I’m Watching the Delta Dialogues


A big part of my job as a journalist and think tank fellow is to talk about why California’s budget and governing systems don’t work. So about 50 times a year, I explain to audiences around the state how we got into our current mess, and I outline all the policy options for fixing our system.

Each time, someone inevitably stands up and asks, “So I accept your explanation and love all the different ideas for fixing things, but how can you ever possibly get enough people and interest groups in California to come together and agree on any fix?”

And my only reply is: “I have no idea how you do that.”

Mine is an honest answer. And also an unsatisfying one. Which is why I agreed to serve as storyteller for the Delta Dialogues. I want to know how we might progress in getting California out of its crisis.

This is a personal and professional concern. This is my home state. I’m fourth generation Californian and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. I’ve spent the past 12 years as a reporter and editor here, first for the LA Times, then with the think tank New America, and most recently with a fast-growing magazine called Zócalo. I’ve written two books. Virtually all of my work has involved explaining why California’s politics and government don’t work.

Despite all of this, I’m a strange choice for a storytelling role in a Delta-based project. I live in Southern California, hundreds of miles from the Delta (though I do appreciate the water we receive). I don’t farm or fish or design waterworks (though in the past, members of my extended family have done those things). And, for all my writing and research on California issues, I’ve always avoided the subject of water.

It seemed way too complicated. It was a wicked problem, and I was already consumed by different California wicked problems: our broken budget process and our giant mess of a constitution.

But over the past two years, my outlook and my work has changed. I’ve been trying hard to move beyond describing the budget and governance crisis and to spend time thinking about how we Californians could come together and fix it.

In my search for solutions, I’ve been intrigued by efforts around the world to create deliberative processes with small groups of citizens to resolve very complicated problems. The exact methods vary, as do the specific problems and the locations. (I’ve encountered these processes in Australia, British Columbia, Brussels, Brazil, and Texas.) But in each place, the goal was to bring together stakeholders faced with big, complicated problems, and find some way to understand, cooperate, and compromise.

Of course, reading about such efforts is one thing. Seeing one in person is another thing entirely. And so when I was offered the opportunity to observe a deliberative process like the Delta Dialogues, I couldn’t refuse.

I don’t know if the Delta Dialogues will be a success. I know from my reading that many deliberative processes fail. And I’m very cynical (journalism does that to you) about the ability of people to come together and make progress. But if the Delta Dialogues create a shared understanding of how to address the Delta’s challenges, I’d like to be there to see for myself how the breakthrough happened.

Because if the stakeholders of the Delta succeed in these dialogues, their example could offer lessons for how we might solve all sorts of California problems.