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November 2000

North Bay Regional Water Summit

By Louis Nuyens

"Water Connects Us All" was the call to the table for the first North Bay Regional Water Summit, hosted by the Petaluma City Council on October 19th.

The evening was remarkable. It was the first time that representatives of all 'contractors' (customers) of the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) had ever met in one place to discuss sustainability and quality issues around the North Bay water supply.

Over thirty representatives of contractors were present, from Cotati, Forestville County, North Marin Water District, Marin Municipal Water District, Petaluma, Ronhert Park, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, and Windsor.

Notably absent, however, were all Supervisors from both Sonoma and Marin. The Sonoma Board was represented only by SCWA agents.

The meeting was based on two primary premises: while regulations and guidelines exist, more is needed in order to enact good long-range planning, and good long-range planning must include open discussion with all agencies drawing on the same resources. The meeting was largely motivated by the negotiation tactics of SCWA, which generally negotiates with each contractor separately, often withholding important information for strategic purposes; for example, Petaluma, which was being asked to construct a larger pipeline, ostensibly for its own use, was unaware that there was a proposed pipeline from Marin that might hook up to it.

The evening was professionally presented, and expertly facilitated by Chris Pack of Community Matters.

Acting as spokesperson for the Summit's host, Petaluma City Council Vice Mayor Pamela Torliatt made the evenings opening remarks. Torliatt couched the water issue as one that is not a matter of environment versus economy, but one in which, in the long run, economic viability can only be maintained through sustainable environmental resource practices.

The first featured speaker, Joe Myers of the Pomo native American tribe, recalled his boyhood and the dancing, clear waters, with fish jumping and winking "catch me if you can" and of a grandfather who taught him respect for the environment. Possibly suggestive of limitations to the North Bay's water supply, Myers closed by classifying policy-makers into two phyla: those who adopt or profess a world view to suit the policies they want, and those who adjust their policies in keeping with their view in the real world.

What followed was a mix of speakers promoting business interests, water quality concerns, water conservation, environmental issues, and infrastructure challenges. In some ways, the evening was a slow beginning to what will necessarily be a much longer conversation. It was as if those assembled were all learning a new language that has not yet been fully invented, the language of sustainable practices, and each of them with a different part of it.

B.J. Miller, of U.C. Berkeley and a former board member of the state Department of Water Resources gave an outsider's summary of the issues facing the SCWA contractors. He raised cautions and a variety of other topics for discussion, ranging from ideas such as 'demand hardening' (lack of flexibility in demand, desirable during supply shortages, when conservation and recycling measures have been well-implemented) to water quality problems with new potentially hazardous pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and breakdown byproducts.

John Garn, of a municipal and community program consultants group called ViewCraft, outlined the complex regulatory structure seen by policymakers and from which decision makers draw their authority. Roberta Borgonovo, Director of the League of Women Voters of California, shared lessons from her experiences with the CalFED process, with a particular emphasis on the importance of planning based on geographical features, viz. watershed boundaries, rather than political boundaries.

Comments were also made by contractor representatives. Councilmembers from Sebastopol and Windsor thanked Petaluma and spoke approvingly of the Summit process as a first step in an important process. Jared Huffman of the MMWD board gave a clear, concise description of Marin's considerations regarding its deliberations over whether to construct a pipeline to draw more water to Marin from the Russian River. In a moment of levity, after mentioning that MMWD rates are much higher, under its separate agreement, than those of other SCWA contractors, Huffman pointed out SCWA's General Manager, Randy Poole, who was rocking and grinning at his table like a cat with a mouthful of canary; the observation drew a ripple of nervous chuckles from the other contractors.

The rest of the evening was devoted to a forum style discussion of the municipalities, officials and agencies and their individual concept or concerns. Public comments were through cards only, with a few read sporadically throughout the session, however, all comments are to be compiled and distributed to contractor representatives. The process was one of approaching formation of a new regional water policy from scratch. In addition to predictably stock elements, some suggestions were refreshingly novel, and stimulated a detectable level of excitement in many of the participants; for example, the idea of thinking of future generations as unrepresented stakeholders in policy.

The SCWA contingent participated, but not without clear discomfort. Interestingly, the other participants seemed to find new enthusiasm in working with each other, and in not having to rely solely on SCWA dictates.

The pull of the growth machine and the push of environmental advocates were still at odds, yet they all came to the table, and one could perceive the possibility, if the process started by the Summit continues, that they will find more common ground than they imagined, and better solutions. However, when the Eleventh Amended Agreement was still viable, the Petaluma City Council initially asserted a need for only 90 days to seek to meet with other contractors. It seems evident the process begun by this Summit is likely to take considerably longer to begin to come to fruition.

The Summit's ultimate goal would be creation of a "Regional Water Governance and Policy Structure,' which would be at least partially based on model programs that have been successful in New York City, Colorado, Canada, Illinois and Oregon.

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