San Joaquin’s collaborative approach to California water issues

150 150 Niki Woodard

A cloudscape over the San Joaquin Valley (photo: jgatts/Flickr)

These days, our societal narrative seems to focus more on contention rather than cooperation, leaving many opportunities for real change on the table.

The San Joaquin Valley is challenging that narrative. 

In an effort to cultivate the Valley’s opportunities, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger formed the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley (“the Partnership”) in 2005 as a consortium of eight counties from Kern County in the south to San Joaquin County in the north. With Fresno mayor Ashley Swearingen at the helm, the Partnership’s 40-member board consists of some high-level movers and shakers from the public and private sector. Together, they’re pouring a good deal of dedication and creative vision into improving the economic vitality and quality of life in the San Joaquin Valley.

Last week, on September 21, the Partnership convened its quarterly board meeting. It was an ambitious agenda covering important topics that will have rippling effects throughout the Valley, including public transportation, broadband access in rural communities, economic development, and of course, water. 

Accolades were flying high when it came time to discuss the accomplishments of the Water Work Group, a collaboration among the eight counties of the Partnership and the Delta Counties Coalition of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The coalition exists to find water management solutions among often competing interests. 

“Today is pretty historic. It is ground breaking,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, Partnership Board member and CEO of California Emerging Technology Fund. “The product from the Work Group is an immense piece of citizenship,” continued McPeak who is also Board President of the Delta Vision Foundation.

What’s so groundbreaking? The Work Group presented a list of 18 projects, agreed upon by all participating counties, for the Partnership to approve and promote for accelerated implementation. The emphasis here is on agreement. About water

These projects advance common agendas among diverse and often competing stakeholders while meeting the co-equal goals of improving water supply reliability and restoring the Delta ecosystem. The projects also avoid conflicts with long-term planning efforts such as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). 

Now, that’s monumental indeed. 

The projects deal with groundwater recharge, flood management, water quality, water supply and environmental restoration. Sarge Green, a key member of the Water Work Group and Project Director of the California Water Institute at California State University Fresno said that the list “represents a strategic framework, some of the cream of the crop of projects that can be implemented in the San Joaquin Valley in the short term.” 

“I can’t overstate the importance of what’s been accomplished in light of the decades and generations of California water wars,” said Peter Weber, Partnership board member and representative to the Federal Interagency Task Force. To get things done, “we have to work toward common sense solutions for everyone and break out of our silos. We absolutely have to work together. This effort is doing that.” 

Looking forward, DeeDee D’Adamo, Partnership Board member and representative to the California Air Resources Board, said “We expect this list to get a lot of attention in Washington and Sacramento. This coalition of counties is a formidable force of collaboration.”

The unanimous enthusiasm generated for the accomplishments of the Water Work Group is in sharp contrast to the state’s overall performance according to the 2012 Delta Vision Report Card, issued by the Delta Vision Foundation, a watchdog group tracking the government’s performance on implementing the Delta Vision Strategic Plan.  

California received a D- for its progress toward implementing near-term actions to address water supply reliability and Delta ecosystem restoration. The report cited a “continued lack of action to address urgent risks and immediate ecosystem needs.” 

Charles Gardiner, Executive Director of the Delta Vision Foundation, explained that state processes to address the Delta challenges seem to be stuck in a loop he described as: “contention, planning, inertia, contention, planning, inertia,” which can paralyze progress. “We have to get off the contention plane and into the realm of common interests and action,” he advised. 

The Water Work Group is building on common interests and focusing on implementation of near-term actions. Gardiner said he hopes this effort and other collaborative stakeholder efforts like the Delta Projects Coalition “can demonstrate to the state and federal agencies how to get things done.”

McPeak seconded that opinion, with gusto. “If the state gets its act together sooner rather than later, it will be because of the San Joaquin Valley Partnership Initiative,” she said.


Niki Woodard

All stories by: Niki Woodard