The Water Forum

Case Study 3: Managed Networks – Collaborative Example

This report has three sections.  Section I is based on documents supplied by the Water Forum and provides background information and an overview of the Water Forum.  Section II is based on interviews with key members of the Water Forum and covers several issues based on the perceptions of the people interviewed.  Section III provides an analysis from the perspective of network management and draws from both the written documents and the interviews.

Section I

Background and Overview

The Water Forum was convened by the Sacramento City-County Office of Metropolitan Water Planning to negotiate an agreement on how to manage the water supply for the region and preserve the area’s ecological habitat.   Formative meetings were held in 1993 and included representatives from the City and County of Sacramento, environmental stakeholders and activists, business owners and executives, agricultural leaders, and representatives of various citizen groups.  In 1995, water managers for the California counties of Placer and El Dorado joined the meetings.  Everyone in these early meetings recognized that, although many parties were working on various solutions to the water problems in the region, most solutions were crafted and pursued by individual groups within the framework of their own interests and objectives.  In many cases, competition among these groups resulted in lawsuits.

In order to break the resulting litigious gridlock, the City and County of Sacramento convened the Water Forum in hopes of working toward an agreement with these diverse groups. Representatives of the groups spent six years negotiating an agreement.  They conducted interest-based dialogues over thousands of hours in hundreds of meetings of all sizes and scale in many different venues.  They benefited from an investment of several million dollars in expert technical counsel (hydrology, biology, economics, fisheries, water engineering, etc.) and mediation consulting into the causes of the gridlock and finally agreed on principles meant to guide the region’s water resources and related development.   of many hours of research into the causes of the gridlock and finally agreed on principles meant to guide the region’s water resources and related development.  Throughout this time the representatives to the forum presented draft proposals to their respective organizational governing bodies to insure their engagement and a continued stream of feedback to the process.  Participants in the Water Forum also conducted numerous meetings with community and stakeholder groups including chambers of commerce, citizen advisory councils, civic groups, resources agencies, statewide environmental groups, and federal and state water users.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Water Forum Agreement contains the agreements made during the six years.  The MOU was signed in January 2001 by all of the stakeholder organizations, though four initially did not fully agree.  Nonetheless, the agreement is based on two co-equal objectives:

    • Provide a reliable and safe water supply for the region’s economic health and planned development to the year 2030; and,
    • Preserve the fishery, wildlife, recreational, and aesthetic values of the Lower American River. 

In addition to these two objectives, the Water Forum participants agreed on seven inter-related, interlocking and comprehensive elements that implement these objectives.  The detailed text that describes the objectives constitute the achievement of the Water Forum and speak to water conservation, surface diversions, dry-year cut-backs, groundwater management, flow standards, habitat management, and the successor effort to the Water Forum.

According to the Water Forum web site, the MOU provides “overall political and moral commitment to the Agreement.”  Other contracts, authorities and similar actions supplement the MOU.  The agreement commits the signatories – now approximately 40 in number – to work together on existing and new water issues over a period of 30 years from the date of signing.

Factors influencing the agreement included:

    • Water shortages during California’s periodic droughts;
    • The region’s continued growth placing greater demand on the water supply;
    • The need to maintain the beauty of the Lower American River;
    • The need to protect groundwater basins; and,
    • The need among suppliers for multiple sources of water to maintain a reliable flow of water.

Because of their long-standing conflicts, the stakeholders agreed to conduct their meetings as a formal mediation process.  The process they used is called “interest-based negotiation,” a process that focuses on the underlying reasons (“interests”) of the parties involved, instead of on their demands (“positions”).

Water Forum participants decided that unless they continually followed up on the agreement it would fall apart.  In addition, they recognized that circumstances and conditions would change in the intervening years and likely affect the terms of the agreement.  Therefore, the representatives decided to form the Water Forum Successor Effort, still referred to as the Water Forum, as a vehicle for maintaining and managing their commitment for life of the agreement. 

Forum participants conducted a five-year review of the network’s efforts in February 2006, a self-imposed periodic evaluation required as part of the agreement.  Based on a survey of stakeholders, the evaluation showed the following:

    • Over 95 percent of respondents indicated support for continuing practice of addressing “changed conditions;”
    • 80 percent of stakeholder respondents rated implementation of the Water Forum Agreement over the past five years as good or better; and,
    • 76 percent of respondents felt the Water Forum Successor Effort was meeting the needs of their interest group or organization.

In addition, the Water Forum also completed a first-ever report and an important joint effort covering five key areas related to management of the American River including:

    • Managing the river to protect habitat;
    • Maintaining and improving habitats near the river;
    • Meeting water quality goals and regulatory standards;
    • Stabilizing levees and controlling erosion; and,
    • Communicating and collaborating with key stakeholders.

All of the signatories have continued working together to implement the agreement with stakeholders pointing to several key accomplishments including improved water flow, regional conservation efforts and expanded groundwater management[i].

Currently the Water Forum is structured so that a plenary works on policy and includes all the members of the Water Forum.  In addition, there are multiple committees which report to the plenary.  Some are on-going like the Coordinating Committee and others are intermittent or ad hoc like the Conservation Team.  According to one interviewee, one of the best things about the Forum is how flexible it is.  They develop dialogue groups that encompass whoever needs to be at the table to solve the problem.  Sometimes (like the Landscape Water Conservation Task Force) they bring organizations in that are not even part of the Water Forum.  Sometimes they bring together small groups (4-8 people) and sometimes large ones (up to 40).  At any given time, there are always 4-5 sub-group efforts going on trying to resolve specific issues.  Then the resolutions are brought back to their plenary for ratification.  This process is fundamental to how participants in the Water Forum work.  In addition the Water Forum has standing caucuses representing each of the major interest groups including business, environmentalists and water purveyors.

Currently the Water Forum is structured so that a plenary works on policy and includes all the members of the Water Forum.  In addition, two committees report to the plenary.  They include the coordinating committee and the conservation committee.  In addition the Water Forum has standing caucuses representing each of the major interest groups including business, environmentalists and water purveyors.

The City and County of Sacramento financially supported the initial effort and have provided substantial subsequent support.

The Water Forum has now extended its efforts to work on behalf of the Cosummes River. 

Section II

Perceptions Gained from Interviews

Whereas Section I presents factual data, this section presents perceptions of the Water Forum based on several interviews.  A questionnaire template guided these interviews, although, in several of the interviews, this template was adapted to meet the specific involvement of those interviewed.  Based on the questionnaire, the following broad topics are covered:  Purpose, Commitment, Funding, Structure and Processes, Accomplishments, Longevity of the Water Forum, Evaluation and Other Concerns.


All interviewees agreed that the purpose of the Water Forum and the Water Forum Successor Effort is to resolve the issues around water allocation and to preserve the habitat along the American River watershed.  The objectives as stated in the Agreement (see the overview in Section 1) fully express and embrace the Water Forum’s purposes, according to those interviewed.  The water issues concern a three-county region: Sacramento, El Dorado, and Placer.  Although other watersheds are included, California’s American River is the main focus.

The Water Forum began because the City and County of Sacramento were unable to gain approval for proposed American River projects because different parties were continually suing both the City and County of Sacramento.  In addition, others were having trouble, including suburban Sacramento, Roseville, Folsom, etc.  It was not just the environmentalists suing the water interests, but the water suppliers suing or threatening to sue one another.  To move ahead more productively, the parties agreed to seek a negotiated – rather than a litigated – settlement.  Six years later, in 2000, after a deliberate process of self and group education designed for stakeholders to better understand one another and one another’s interests, the stakeholders signed an agreement and continued working together as the Water Forum Successor Effort.

Interviewees noted the fundamental importance of their early decision to engage in and to educate themselves to understand the process of interest-based negotiation that was used to reach the agreement.  All attributed to this approach the resultant successful negotiations leading to the agreement.  Interviewees characterized the continuing value of the Water Forum chiefly in terms of how it works for them at several levels.   First, members of the Water Forum stay in continual communication, exchanging information to stay current on existing and emerging issues.  They also work on coordinating many of their efforts to assure that the agreement is followed.  Finally, in many instances, the various organizations have actually taken actions within their own organizations that have resulted in changes to their operations and the systems that underlie those operations.

Notable among the features of the network are:


Water Forum participants note high levels of overall commitment to the purposes, processes and collaborative results achieved through the forum.  The few members not meeting their responsibilities do not seem to affect this overall commitment. 

The choice of the Water Forum organizers to hire a highly dedicated and professional staff represents a signal achievement of the effort.  According to one interviewee, without this staff the Water Forum would not have happened.  This is also true for the expert facilitation services provided by the Center for Collaborative Policy (CCP) at Sacramento State University. For the first six years, it was mostly Susan Sherry, from the CCP, (with Larry Norton handling groundwater in the Central basin) who provided these expert facilitation services.  For the past six years, Jeff Loux has worked alongside Susan Sherry in providing facilitation services. According to one interviewee it was Susan Sherry, along with the CCP, who brought in the model of interest-based negotiation and the Forum would have gone nowhere without her, a sentiment expressed by other interviewees, too.

Interviewees mentioned a few key players whose contributions and support have been significant.  Among those named were representatives from environmental organizations. One interviewee mentioned the Sierra Club in particular, and another interviewee indicated that the Friends of the River (FOR) as a key environmental group (represented by Ron Stork). According to the second interviewee, the Sierra Club was also a major player, but FOR was and is the stalwart group.  Other interviewees mentioned that businesses were also key players.  Financial, logistical and other support to the Water Forum has come from many sources, including the participating organizations and especially from the City and County of Sacramento.  Additional support comes from non-signatories to the agreement including the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Fisheries.  In addition strong support comes from both the business media and the general press, especially newspapers.

More important to interviewees than identifying key players, however, was their emphasis on the strong sustained support the Water Forum receives from the majority of members extending back more than a decade.  All members invested and continue investing significant time and effort in the Water Forum; many members also contribute large sums of money.  The key, according to one interviewee, is that influential members are those who understand and listen to others and try to work out ways to address all the interests involved.  In addition, interviewees indicated that assertion of institutional power or “clout” might occur on occasion to influence decisions, but much more prevalent is a kind of discourse that results in participants reaching agreements.

Participants work jointly to involve and include all key stakeholders and continually engage new participants.  In addition, they support and extend inclusiveness by keeping interested individuals and groups apprised of the Water Forum’s work.  They go the extra mile by keeping even non-members through media channels, occasional events and other active outreach.

Though the group still experiences occasional contention and some conflict around how to implement programs, they use their well-practiced process of interest-based negotiation to manage and resolve matters.


As indicated before, funding for the Water Forum comes almost entirely from the City and County of Sacramento (approximately $12 million over seven years), although water purveyors in local districts also contribute under a formula derived from their total number of water connections.  The water districts have committed to continue providing these funds for 30 years from the date of the signing of the agreement.  Participating businesses pay two cents of every water fee as their contribution.  Although the other members do not contribute money they do contribute time and other resources as needed.   No one has any problem with this arrangement. 

Structure and Processes

The Water Forum employs a full-time staff consisting of an executive director, two analysts (one an engineer and the other a communications professional), and two administrative personnel.  With the exception of the executive director, staff salaries come from Water Forum funding.  The City and County of Sacramento pay the executive director’s salary.  All staff members are responsible and accountable to the members of the Water Forum.  Similarly, the important work done through CCP by Susan Sherry, Jeff Loux and others from the organization has provided critical support to the Water Forum’s continued success. 

The plenary discussed earlier consists of all of the approximately 40 Water Forum members. The plenary meets every two months, focusing mainly on an educational, information-sharing agenda.  Four caucus groups subdivide the plenary membership into issue-focused groups, each with representatives from the organizations concerned with matters important to the caucus generally.  The original caucus groups were environmentalists, water purveyors, development and businesses organizations, and public entities such as municipalities, counties and neighborhood groups.  The public group no longer meets.  The caucuses meet independently, sometimes once a month, to clarify and discuss their position on various issues.  Making decisions requires the agreement of 75 percent of the members of each caucus before a proposal becomes activated.  Where conflicts occur between caucus positions, representatives meet to seek resolution.  Although the agreements reached in the caucuses are supposed to be voted on by the plenary, because 75 percent of those in the caucuses agree before the proposals go forward, the plenary has never had to take a vote on any issue. 

The coordinating committee makes ministerial and policy decisions around dues, budgets and oversight of major work projects.  The committee consists of about 16 members, including representatives of each of the caucuses and the executive director. 

The staff takes responsibility for coordination, but they have taken on more duties as more forum projects have been implemented.  Interviewees agree that the most contentious debates have occurred, but there is still a much negotiation and the staff has gotten more involved in this process.  The members still negotiate with each other, but the staff has acquired more power and mandate over the years to do the work involved in implementing decisions.

Although the executive director supervises the staff, he has less authority than a traditional manager and functions much more in a facilitative than an executive role.  He also works very closely with the mediator and other technical staff.  According to one interviewee, however, this does not mean that the executive director does not have much more political clout, freedom and executive capacity than an executive director working for a political board, for instance.  In fact, the same interviewee felt the executive director enjoyed greater ability to get things done and more power in the region than a typical executive director of a typical organization.


There have been a number of accomplishments in the form of completed projects.  These have included:          

    • Conservation efforts
    • Habitat programs
    • New flow standards for the river
    • New water treatment plants
    • Diversion of the American River

The Water Forum has produced offspring efforts.  For instance, a Sacramento Ground Water Authority memorandum of understanding to manage ground water resources has been developed.  Another authority, the Southern Ground Water Authority, is in development.  Two other offspring include the Yuba River Accord which, interviewees report, has been very successful and the Land Use Transportation Accord, which fell apart.  The Water Forum, as a result, has developed additional stature and important know-how that has spurred interest in the Water Forum’s history and development among outside agencies and, not inconsequentially, brought in grant money.

Interviewees concur that a direct result of the Water Forum has been the development of trust and new or deepened relationships among members.  As examples, they cite a greater willingness among stakeholders to cross jurisdictional borders, improved interaction and mutual respect, and a wider range of communication on non-forum issues.

Longevity of the Water Forum

Interviewees cited several reasons for the Water Forum’s durability and longevity.  They indicated that all members joined in a common education process that preceded negotiation of the agreement.  They were also trained to use a type of negotiation process that they felt allowed their voices to be heard equally and fairly.  Interviewees credited the presence and availability of trained mediators throughout the process and a practice of training all new Water Forum members in the process of interest-based negotiation.

Another important sustaining factor for the forum was referred to as a “sense of community.” Members new and old get to know one other on a personal level through acts as simple as eating together and socializing in informal, non-pressured situations.  Members routinely deepened personal bonds by talking to one another informally and, interviewees felt, discovering commonalities and similarities.  As a result, members saw counterparts as multi-dimensional rather than one-sided.  Developers, for example, were not only about building houses, but also about creating livable spaces for fellow human beings.  Embedded in the sense of community exists a kind of pride of ownership in the Water Forum, a genuine valuing of the quality of the Agreement they hammered out together, and the practical fact of accomplishing concrete ends that served individual and common interests both.


There is a State of the River report each year that takes an objective look at achievements, progress and challenges.  The Agreement calls for a status report of the Forum internal operations as a reality check and an aid to transparency.  A five-year review involving an extensive survey of key community leaders, the Water Forum membership and the facilitators also provided data for reflection and development of the group.

Other Concerns

Members of the Water Forum pointed out that, in spite of the forum’s success, members will only remain motivated to participate in the effort if it continues addressing their best interests. Participants agree on the importance of continuously working to establish trust and mutual respect among all parties.  Although it is possible to create conditions that allow for this to occur, each member must want such trust and respect and come prepared both to expect it from others and to accord it to others.  Everyone interviewed agreed that the timing for the group to reach formal agreement must be right and sufficient resources and commitment must be in place for the process to continue long enough for agreement to materialize. Patience, interviewees argued, would be one watchword of the Water Forum process along with careful listening to understand different positions and interests.  In this case, a mediator was a critical role to build into the effort and a mediation process important to agree upon from the start.

Section III

Elements of Effective Network Management

Based on the information in Sections I and II, a number of issues arose that affect not just the Water Forum, but that have implications for other, similar networks.  The critical elements contributing to the success of the Water Forum involve an emphasis on people skills, as well as the time and mechanisms put into place to make the process work.

Emphasis on People Skills

Interviewees emphasized the key importance of Water Forum members developing “people” skills.  This included taking the time up front to allow members to get to know one another as well as making sure they were able to successfully negotiate with one another.  The Water Forum began as a group of members who had a long history of conflicts and distrust.  Unless members in a collaborative network such as the Water Forum commit to taking the time to overcome historical feelings of distrust or ill will resulting from adversarial relationships, those feelings and behaviors will continue to dominate the negotiations and cause problems.  The simple act of dining together before the meetings – time that afforded possibilities for members to share personal and family matters and explore outside interests – allowed Water Forum members sufficient interaction to appreciate one another as individuals with many interests.  This allowed them to find mutual points of interest upon which to build the pockets of trust needed to insure the success of the process. 

The Time and Mechanisms Dedicated to Supporting the Process

Early on, members of the group recognized the need to develop and agree upon a mediation process as an alternative to the adversarial processes in which many had previously engaged.  The mediation process, as much as surfacing issues and looking for solutions, focused on building mutual trust and respect among members.  Critical to this element of the Water Forum was:

    • The time and care taken in selecting the mediator;
    • The training and education received by members both on the process and critical issues; and,
    • The willingness of Water Forum members to vest the mediator with “process authority” and to allow the process time to work and show tangible results. 

Though conflicts needing resolution remain and everyone knows others will arise in the future, it is largely the care placed in choosing the right approach up front that has allowed the Water Forum to remain viable and highly productive for 12 years.  Water Forum members, supported by staff, mediators and technical personnel, continually evaluate the process with a keen eye to influencing network conditions in ways that keep members motivated to participate and a process that produces genuine and tangible public benefits progressing as smoothly as possible.

[i] This report can be found at: