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OPINION: A story of collaboration

Something great is happening in Monterey County. Working together with a broad and diverse coalition of local stakeholders, we took a state mandate that first appeared to be lemons and made lemonade.

As background, in 2014 California adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA for short. The law requires that each groundwater basin deemed as critical establish a groundwater management agency to develop a local sustainable management plan.

This state mandate came without funding, only with a requirement and deadlines. The first requirement is the formation of a new groundwater sustainability agency, due by June 30, 2017.

With a strong desire for an open, transparent process that included stakeholders from all interested sectors of groundwater use, a neutral facilitator was engaged to guide the process. This broad group of 22 stakeholders, known as the Collaborative Work Group (Group), was formed to represent interests including social justice, environment, agriculture, government (County and municipalities), water agencies and utilities, and other affected communities. The group started meeting in February 2016 by laying out ground rules.

Over the next 11 months, meeting twice a month, the Group worked collectively to design a new public agency; most significant was an early decision that one single agency would be developed for the entire Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin. As with any group with varied interests and beliefs, there were struggles and intense discussions surrounding the governance structures needed to oversee the agency and its requirements under SGMA. Ultimately, the Group formed an agreement and decided on a Board of Directors of eleven encompassing many of the stakeholder sectors sitting on the Group itself.

The Group submitted its recommendation for the agency structure to the Board of Supervisors in December for a thumbs-up or -down vote. Fortunately, the result was a big thumbs up, along with an enthusiastic acknowledgment from the Supervisors on the depth and breadth of engagement and representation from the various stakeholder communities.

In January and February, the selection process and approval of the eleven directors was completed and on March 9th the first Board meeting of the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency convened. This was time for celebrating the culmination of the Collaborative Work Group efforts over the past year.

Where’s the lemonade in this process? Stakeholders with different beliefs and goals came together for the greater good. In forming this agreement, we realized that we didn’t need to get groups of people with different interests to agree on things they don’t. Instead, we focused on finding agreement to solve problems, in this case, to set up a structure that meets the requirements of the law and where the stakeholders have a voice. No one stakeholder group got all they wanted, but no one walked away empty handed either. There was a true spirit of cooperation held in the process, which started early with respectful discussions and treating each other as equals. It took a lot of time to make decisions this way, and it was not always easy or comfortable. But all participants walked away supporting the final decision.

Eric Tynan, General Manager of Castroville Community Services District, commented, “The leadership shown by the City of Salinas, the County of Monterey and the Ag Caucus in working together in developing a solution to the very complicated and sometimes divisive water issues should be applauded.”

Some may argue that it’s not a perfect solution and given that it’s a state mandate and everyone has their interests in water, it can’t perfectly match everyone’s satisfaction. What’s important is that diverse groups in Monterey County came together and produced a solution in the true spirit of collaboration.

As this mandate came without any state funding, local interests have funded a major portion of the facilitated process, including the County, City of Salinas, Monterey County Water Resource Agency, and the Agricultural sector of the Salinas Valley. Everyone had a financial stake in the success of this process because we are all water users.

In the spirit of cooperation and respect, we will continue to work together to accomplish good things for our County, whether it’s mandated by law or social construct. This agency formation process should serve as a model of how to get things done locally, without resorting to retreating into our corners or using lawsuits to get our way.

“The Collaborative Working Group shows how distinctly varied interests can actually work together to meet the goal of forming the agency tasked with maintaining the sustainability of a large portion of the Salinas River groundwater basin. It is an honor to have been part of the Group,” stated Brian LeNeve, Environmental Representative on the Group.

Let’s congratulate all of those involved in this truly visionary way to find solutions to complex problems.

Norm Groot is the executive director of Monterey County Farm Bureau and Kim Stemler is the executive director of Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association.

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