Tales from the Water Wars — Jonas Minton’s testimony on true collaboration

Jonas Minton, the Senior Water Policy Advisor for Planning and Conservation League, passed away on June 22, 2022. He was 73.

I had the privilege of serving on an expert panel with Jonas on April 2, 2018. We testified in the WaterFix Water Right Change Petition hearing for attorneys Bob Wright and Kyle Jones, representing the Planning and Conservation League / Friends of the River, and the Sierra Club, respectively. Besides Jonas Minton and myself, the expert panel included Friends of the River’s Senior Advocate Ron Stork, and Larry Kolb, the former Assistant Executive Officer of the SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

At the end of our testimony, the Hearing Officer, Tam Doduc, said:

Thank you, all witnesses. By the way, I have to say that you did a very
fine job in your direct testimony, concise, and you spoke to us rather than just reading off… a paper, so that was one of the best presented, I think, direct testimony we’ve heard.

Our attorneys were enormously pleased by this complement.

Jonas Minton provided many great observations that day. The observations which most show his legacy are in his testimony on truly collaborative processes. In my opinion, Jonas’ ability to facilitate collaborations between stakeholders in truly fair, equitable, and transparent processes was his greatest gift to the California water community. He will be greatly missed.

This is from Jonas Minton’s written testimony:

In evaluating whether the change is in the public interest, and balancing the public trust, we urge the SWRCB to consider the success of a different approach. It did not use the BDCP/WaterFix approach of telling stakeholders and regulators what they should support (known as the “Decide, Announce and Defend” method). Instead it asked stakeholders to identify projects that would work.

In a remarkable 6 month process an Ad Hoc effort known as the Coalition to Support Delta Projects resulted in 37 key stakeholders signing a letter of support for 43 specific Delta projects to move forward. See attached letter of October 17, 2012 to Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., Subject: Near Term Delta Projects We Support To Move Forward in the Process(es). (Exhibit FOR- 79) These included a mix of projects to improve water supply reliability, improve the Delta ecosystem and preserve and enhance Delta as place.

The process by which this balanced approach to public trust resources came about offers an alternative to the process that led to the struggling WaterFix petition currently before the SWRCB.

The Coalition started with six individuals in February of 2012: Jason Peltier, then Assistant General Manager of Westlands Water District; Jonas Minton, Water Policy Advisor of the Planning and Conservation League; Roger Patterson, Assistant General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Greg Gartrell, then Assistant General Manager of Contra Costa Water District; Tom Zuckerman, Delta farmer; and Doug Brown representing the five Delta Counties.

In a novel approach they decided to invite all interested parties to come together to see if there might be a handful of Delta projects that could be broadly supported. The California State Association of Counties donated their conference room for the meetings.

The Department of Water Resources agreed to fund Susan Sherry, then Director of the Center for Collaborative Policy, to mediate. That was critical to the success of the effort as over 70 water district representatives, county officials, Delta interests, environmental representatives, fishery agencies and others showed up for the first meeting.

From the outset it was made clear that no one would be told what projects should be supported. They were instead asked what projects that had in mind that could be broadly supported. Unlike the BDCP process there was no requirement that participants agree in advance to support what came out the other end.

The group quickly identified criteria for project ideas the participants could bring forward:

A. Projects that have wide support
B. Projects that can be on line within 5 to 10 years
C. Projects that are “no risk or low risk for any regrets” and do not prejudice the outcome of BDCP or the Delta Plan
D. Projects that can be funded
E. Projects supported by local landowners
F. Projects we could learn from
G. Projects that are designed or refined/redesigned to avoid impacts and provide multiple benefits
H. Projects supported by science, and that come with specific monitoring or performance criteria, but absolute certainty of outcome not possible or required
I. Projects that could foster cooperation
J. No “red flagged” projects

Participants were then given the opportunity to come back with projects they felt could meet those criteria. Over the next several meetings the large group vetted each of the proposals.

Initially several participants asked what would be the threshold a proposal would have to meet to get group support, was it a majority, a super majority or some other metric. The mediator advised holding off on that discussion until later.

It turned out that only a few of the proposed projects were not in a state to get consensus support. The proponents on their own withdrew those from consideration. In some cases important conversations among stakeholders had to occur before a proposal was ready for support.

However within 6 months from the start of the process 37 key stakeholders signed the letter of unanimous support for 43 specific Delta projects to move forward. I am unaware of any other document that has the signatures of stakeholders as diverse as Jason Peltier, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Roger Patterson, and supervisors from all five counties.

This broad support known as the Coalition to Support Delta Projects has already been useful in moving several of the projects forward. For instance it provided the forum for Contra Costa Water District and the Department of Water Resources to resolve scheduling conflicts that were impeding relocation of the Contra Costa Canal Lining Project (water supply reliability) and the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project (enhancing the Delta ecosystem).

Coalition support assisted in getting funding for levee improvements along Old and Middle Rivers (flood control and water supply reliability along the Old and Middle River Corridor). In that case diverse signatories to the support letter went to the Department of Water Resources and successfully made the case for targeting funds for these important levees. They also worked with DWR to streamline the funding application process so that Reclamation Districts could effectively participate.

Although this was a significant accomplishment to advance worthwhile projects, by the end of 2012 the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was polarizing stakeholders and began consuming all of their time and attention. It was decided that the Coalition could not make further progress at that time.

Original leaders of the Coalition have met periodically since then to see if the time was right to resume the constructive effort. However it has been clear that as BDCP morphed into WaterFix the time was not right.

Sacramento Water Forum is another example of how a collaborative process can lead to durable outcomes. In that case after years of fighting among themselves, water districts in three counties, environmentalists, units of local government, business groups and the taxpayers’ association found a way to meet their mutually defined co-equal objectives:

To provide a reliable and safe water supply for the Sacramento region’s long-term growth and economic health; and
To preserve the fishery, wildlife, recreational, and aesthetic values of the lower American River.

Stakeholders signing of the landmark Water Forum Agreement in 2000, continue to protect the diverse regional interests in Sacramento, El Dorado, and Placer Counties. Now, more than 15 years later, the Sacramento region and Water Forum members have an impressive record of implementing farsighted water management solutions that have served to protect the river and foster regional vitality.

In evaluating whether approving the WaterFix Change Petition is in the public interest, and balancing the public trust, it is appropriate for the SWRCB to recognize that an approach different than that used to develop BDCP/WaterFix is possible. Collaborative efforts such as the Coalition to Support Delta Projects and the Sacramento Water Forum work when there is a fair, inclusive and transparent process.

2 thoughts on “Tales from the Water Wars — Jonas Minton’s testimony on true collaboration

  1. Jonas Minton’s passing at 73, who I have known for well over 30 years from CALPAW and otherwise, was very unfortunate and far too young to have left us.
    He was a very dedicated and hardworking individual, as so many other nonprofit Eco/Poverty/and SJWarriors just like he have been and still are, for so many decades now involved in California water issues and he truly dedicated his life and career to this enterprise and his vision …
    which, as we can also now so clearly see, …
    has been and continues to be 100% misguided and a 100% complete failure of both vision and mission, imho …
    Thank you for at least trying, as I do as well, Jonas!

    Now you belong to the angels …
    and I’ll look froward to seeing you on the other side …

  2. So glad to read this. Hope that everyone can start conserving water at home by replacing the lawn with native plantings that, once established, do not require watering.

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