Exhaustive Public Process Brings Consensus Results – August 20, 1010

Friday, August 20, 2010

By Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap and Bruce Rupp

Over the past year, the stakeholders and citizens of Humboldt County would have made James Madison proud. They certainly made our job easier by doing as Madison suggested: arming themselves with knowledge and sharing that information with the elected directors of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District.

Last fall, HBMWD’s five-member board of directors tasked us to represent the board on the Water Resource Planning Advisory Committee. The focus: develop a long-term plan to protect water rights, control water rates, and maintain or enhance the Mad River watershed.

The process involved municipal customers, stakeholders, randomly selected citizens and members of the general public who participated in any of the nine public meetings or a day-long workshop. Roughly 400 people gave their time to share their values, knowledge and experiences. Stakeholders who might normally find themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum worked cooperatively and productively to find alternatives to put our most precious resource to good use.

People with no prior knowledge about water came to learn and contribute; people with past experience learned more.

The result is a 130-page report detailing community values, research on water-intensive businesses and possible uses for 60 million gallons of untreated water per day. That amounts to 80 percent of HBMWD’s permitted water – and currently none of it is being put to beneficial use as required by the state.

The document is posted at hbmwd.com.

The amount of constructive participation and agreement among divergent stakeholders and interested parties is impressive. We never had any group show up in an organized way and try to take over the meetings, which meant that as a community we were able to broach hot-button issues like water transfers — an issue which inflamed the public in the past.

The respect for the process and the desire to work together for solutions have made this one of the most satisfying and positive experiences we’ve had in our combined 20 plus years of public service.  We want to thank the 12 members of the WRP Advisory Committee – fellow citizens who served their stakeholder groups and the community by volunteering hundreds of hours of time. Their dedication was immense; their commitment to cooperation and solutions admirable.

The report provides the foundation from which the board can further consider, plan and ultimately take action to use additional water.  This community-based planning effort is a giant leap that helps the board position itself where the community wants it to be when our water rights permit expires in 2029.

We don’t have to choose one option or another in putting our water to use; we could potentially do them all:  increase in-stream flows to enhance Mad River fisheries, develop aquaculture, build a new recreational lake, or transport water within the district or outside it.

We have multiple possibilities – all of which have trade-offs and most of which require environmental impact reports. But we’re in the driver’s seat, and we intend to stay there.

We’ve done it by setting a standard of community discussion based on acquiring knowledge, developing informed opinions, and respecting others. In a world of 10-second sound bites and campaign slogans, Humboldt County took the time to immerse itself in an issue and relished the complexity that’s involved in good governance.

Aldaron Laird, Tera Prucha, Barbara Hecathorn and the two of us are your elected representatives to HBMWD, which delivers high quality drinking water and untreated industrial use water at reasonable cost from the Mad River to more than 70,000 Humboldt County residents.

Madison said the effect of representative democracy is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation.”

To those of you who helped us discern the county’s interest, thank you.

To those who have yet to participate, welcome. There is much to do in the years ahead to protect the most valuable resource we have.

Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap (Division 1) and Bruce Rupp (Division 4) are directors of the HBMWD and co-chairs of the District’s Water Resource Planning Advisory Committee.

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