A new conversation about water

In the decades-long fight over California’s water supply, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is ground zero.

The Delta was formed by the two rivers from which it takes its name, rivers nature created to carry water from the mountain snowmelt into San Francisco Bay. The sparsely populated region is home to 50 species of fish and more than 300 species of birds, mammals and wildlife. Among the best known is the Chinook Salmon, which traverses the Delta on its trip from its Sierra spawning grounds to the sea and back.

But man long ago perverted nature’s intent, and the Delta now also serves as a massive pumping station for water flowing to Central Valley farms, the Bay Area and Southern California, which gets much of its drinking water from the north. More than 1,000 miles of levees have rechanneled the Delta’s waterways, creating artificial islands with rich soil that is ideal for farming.

Now, in a twist, man’s restructuring of the Delta is itself threatened, by man and nature.

The courts and government regulators have slowed the flow of water out of the Delta to protect endangered species and the habitat on which they depend. Water users from north and south fume at this intervention. But it is nothing compared to what might happen some day, what many experts say will happen one day. The next big flood or earthquake could damage those aging levees, and if the levees go, the freshwater now traveling south and west would be contaminated by saltwater, rendering it useless for drinking or irrigation. The Delta islands and their farms would be inundated, perhaps never to return.

And if the long-term prospects for the Delta are somewhere between bleak and catastrophic, the shorter-run issues are vexing as well. Experts have recently concluded that man has changed the Delta so much that there is no going back, no way to “restore” its natural habitat. And agreeing on what we want the Delta to be in the future, if we can’t reclaim its past, is nearly impossible given the powerful competing interests with a stake in the issue. This is what is known as a “wicked problem.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, of course, loves wicked problems. He has proposed two, 40-mile long tunnels to carry Sacramento River water under the Delta to the pumping stations for delivery to the Bay Area (read: Silicon Valley) and Southern California. That would save the lives of tiny Delta fish that are now sucked up by the pumps, and it could have other environmental benefits, assuming sufficient water still flows into the Delta. The tunnels also would provide a more reliable supply of fresh water for human and industrial users, which is why agencies representing those interests are inclined to pay for the project.

But in this political era, Brown’s proposal is something of a Hail Mary pass, far from a sure thing. So in the meantime the wars continue. Water importers (and their suppliers) want more for themselves. Environmental groups want less water pumped out. Farmers in the Delta want to be left alone – and protected at the same time from any future harm.

Amid this political and legal combat comes a new wrinkle: a civil conversation. The Delta Conservancy, a state agency formed to advance environmental protection and economic viability in the estuary, last year sponsored a six-month series of intimate discussions meant to bring the warring parties to the table.

The talks had no set agenda and no concrete goal other than conversation. That sounds dreadful. But it might actually be why they worked so well. People who have spent their lives in battle with one another came out of the encounter with newfound appreciation for each other’s interests, even liking each other. How Californian!

Russell van Loben Sels is what city slickers might call a good ol’ boy. He’s lived all his life, and farmed for most of it, in the Delta. He has also been a leader in the farming community’s attempt to preserve its way of life even as everyone else in California fights over the precious resource without which his farm could not exist.

Van Loben Sels was happy to be invited to the dialogue, since, strangely enough, folks in the Delta always seem to be the last to know when the powers that be gather to plan their future. But this particular forum seemed a little odd to him. It featured new-age moderators, a conversation “mapper” who tracked the discussion in real time on a white board, and talking, lots of talking. That was not his style.

“It was difficult,” he said. “Farmers tend to identify a problem, design a solution and then implement it.” This conversation, he said, seemed to involve a lot of “analysis and information gathering.” It was frustrating at first.

Gilbert Cosio, a private engineer and levee expert, felt the same way.

“I’m more of a doer,” he said, “than a planner.”

But as the meetings dragged on, van Loben Sels , Cosio and the others (19 in all) realized that the lack of a specific finish line was letting them do something that they had never really done before: listen, and learn. The participants, rather than arguing as usual, talked about what they needed and what they perceived the others wanted. They took field trips that forced them out of their own comfort zones and into spaces that they had heard a lot about but never seen.

They saw how commercial fisherman on the shores of San Francisco Bay were the center of a vast network of industry and jobs that all depended on a healthy salmon population. They learned how pear farmers south of Sacramento employed pickers and packers and truck drivers who would lose their jobs if the farms went out of business. They saw how something called a “setback levee” might submerge the Delta’s most productive farmland and much of its infrastructure.

Jason Peltier, who represents the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, which many of the other participants view as the Evil Empire, said the non-threatening dialogue allowed everyone to relax and, at times, forget their history of conflict.

“I think we built some trust,” he said. He called the process “one tiny small step” in beginning to address not only the Delta’s problems but the bitter relationships among the stakeholders. One of the biggest achievements, Peltier said, was simply gaining a better understanding of what everyone else was fighting for. That, he said, might make future fights – and there will be future fights — more productive.

Of course, by design, that’s where the process ended – with good will having been built. But the sponsors and the participants were left yearning for more. Many of them are even hoping, against their better instincts, that more meetings might help lead to a fix for what ails the Delta.

“We’ve developed relationships,” van Loben Sels said. “We’ve developed some common understanding. It would be a shame not to employ that.”

Added Cosio, the levee engineer: “We all want the same thing. We want to save the Delta.”

X Close

Subscribe to Our Mailing List