Water is a multi-use resource, with governance being shaped by a range of interacting institutional and economic imperatives. These many uses comprise a joint system where water and economy are linked by varying degrees of dependency on water-based ecosystem services. The production of ecosystem services is contingent on underlying ecological processes. However these processes can be affected by our actions, creating a sustainability dilemma. Institutions are in place to manage the impacts of our actions; however, institutions are subject to a range of pressures including actor preferences, historical factors, socio-cultural narratives, the influence of ideas and experts, and political context. Thus, we have multiple co-existing and competing resource regimes, drawing on an underlying resource system (water), across a shared landscape, with interrelated institutional mechanisms that are shaped by an array of factors. Moreover, water resources governance is highly normative as multiple actors engage in political contestation and seek to privilege their individual interests within institutional outcomes.
Through three interrelated studies, my thesis argues that more attention needs to be paid to the values and normative dimensions that underlie water governance. The first study develops a decision-support tool that helps planners understand the critical linkages between economic activities and ecological factors at the watershed level. The analysis uses Ontario’s Mississippi Valley as an illustrative case. The second study draws on natural resource economics and models of participatory governance in order to examine how cultural values affect water management in the case of Chelsea, Quebec. The third study treats the Ontario Clean Water Act (2006) as a case study. It traces actor involvement in the development of the legislation, examining subsequent institutional changes, and how these changes were then interpreted and transformed by decentralised planning boards that were empowered to develop rules to control activities within local watersheds.
Together, these analyses demonstrate how system effects, combined with actor-institution interactions, can lead to a range of social, environmental and economic risks. This feeds into a critical discussion about the role of watersheds and watershed communities in water resources governance.