There’s consensus that California needs a big new deal to govern water. There’s no consensus on what should be in it. Habitat restoration? Rebuilt levees to withstand earthquakes? Or new tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River to farmers and cities in Southern California?

These are all possibilities for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a water source for 25 million of California’s 38 million people. But if there’s to be a smart deal on the most contentious and complicated issue in California, the most important ingredient isn’t water. It’s sunscreen—the sunscreen that participants in any negotiations should apply to themselves as they head out to look at the affected places firsthand.

If you want tunnels, determine their location while you’re walking along the Sacramento River. If you intend to flood a Delta island to restore habitat, work out the details while meeting on that island. If you’re going to rebuild levees, make those plans while standing on them.

This may sound obvious, but in California it would be novel. The many legislative attempts over the past two generations to devise solutions to California’s water problems share two characteristics: 1) They took place mostly behind closed doors. 2) They failed. Current efforts to enact the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which combines the proposal for tunnels with habitat restoration and literally hundreds of other ideas, could fall into the same pattern.

So let’s step outside.

Last year, I observed a series of dialogues among representatives of Delta stakeholders—farmers, fishermen, water agencies, environmentalists, and officials of local, state, and federal governments. (Full disclosure: I was hired by the Bay Area-based facilitators of the conversations to write an account of the gatherings.)

The dialogues were constructive, even among people who had spent years fighting with (and suing) one another. But in my observation, what was most useful was the location of the talks—out in the field. As they talked, the stakeholders examined levees in various states of repair, visited an island that would be flooded, and toured Delta farms.

Most surprising was, well, the surprise. All the participants had lived or worked in the Delta, in some cases for their entire lives. But even those who knew the Delta best had seen only parts of the massive estuary and kept remarking upon how the place was even more complex than they knew. At one site, state officials realized they hadn’t recognized how a proposed route for one piece of water infrastructure might separate a farm from its packing house.

One breakthrough came during an informal meeting between five stakeholders, including farmers and state officials, at Steamboat Slough in the North Delta, as everyone stood with a map spread out over the front of a pickup truck. The topic was, in the ears of most Californians, pretty obscure: “setback levees”—moving levees to widen the Delta waterways and help restore endangered fish habitats. But there on Steamboat Slough, this small group noticed that much of the best agricultural land is right near the levees, making setback levees very disruptive and expensive. They agreed it made more sense to focus habitat restoration efforts on the low-lying interiors of islands, where crops are less valuable and flooding is already common.

The lesson is that big deals on water will always be nearly impossible, so, if they are to have any chance of success, they must incorporate local knowledge. And, since big deals in California almost always require the ratification of the people, it’s not just dealmakers who should visit the Delta. We Southern Californians are particularly ignorant of where our water comes from. We ought to be informing ourselves.

It only takes an extra hour on your next drive from SoCal to the Bay Area. Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy suggests the following route:

Take I-5 north through Stockton and then west into the Delta on Highway 12. Stop at the Discover the Delta farm stand at the corner of Highway 12 and Highway 160, then head south on 160 over the Antioch Bridge. From there, go west on Highway 4, which connects to I-80 north of Berkeley.

Of course, for those of you who would make water policy, more than a drive-through should be required. To borrow a line from that great water film Chinatown: if you can’t take the water to the negotiations, take the negotiations to the water.

Crossposted on Zocalo Public Square