Cultivating Civility - A New Approach to Old Water Wars
July 2011 Roundtable member, Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith of Pacific Institute, wrote the following op-ed describing the power of consensus-building bodies such as the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply:
This Wednesday the State Water Resources Control Board (entrusted with governing water rights and quality in California) held an Agricultural Water Use Efficiency Workshop. The Workshop brought together a multitude of interests from the California Secretary of Agriculture, to growers, water district managers, academics, water lawyers, and state and federal water suppliers. Given the contentious nature of California’s water wars, one would have expected the standard fireworks and cutting remarks. Instead, there was a remarkable, open, and civil discussion around common-sense issues such as improving the data we collect; rewarding leaders and innovators that improve agricultural water use and productivity; applying a mix of approaches and solutions, including regulations, financial incentives, and education and outreach; and encouraging a variety of co-benefits from enhanced food production to improved water quality and environmental and human health.
State Board members commented that rarely had they seen such a civil exchange of ideas. Yet, the civility that reigned at the State Water Board this week was more than serendipity; it was the result of a growing effort over many months on the part of a new set of voices and organizations that have devoted themselves to meeting, speaking with one another, and perhaps more importantly listening to one another. In today’s world, what masquerades as public processes too often are just “drive-by diplomacy” where different interests get into a room together and everyone gives their individual perspective and then everyone leaves without a real discussion. This process is not only time-consuming but more often than not, little learning occurs. Even when many interests have similar goals – for instance, the long term sustainability of agriculture – the focus ends up on differences of opinion rather than similarities of intent.
Much credit for the new attitude of civility should be given to the work of skilled facilitators and mediators. Particular acknowledgement goes to the Ag Innovations Network, which facilitated the California AgVision2030 process; the California Roundtable on Food and the Environment; and most recently, the Roundtable on Water and Food Supply. These forums have asked for more than traditional drive-by diplomacy – they have asked people to consider that they might not have all the answers and have created constructive discussions and consensus around appropriate policy paths to achieve shared goals, such as addressing California’s water problems while continuing to support a healthy and strong agricultural sector. Like a farmer cultivating the soil, their work is invaluable to create an environment for growth and success. Now, it is up to the State Water Board to reap the harvest – they must begin by acting on their responsibilities to ensure reasonable use of water, to protect our water quality, and to prevent waste.
Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith
Senior Research Associate, Pacific Institute