Watershed Governance

Watershed governance is a manifestation of ecological governance as it relates to water. A key factor for its success is improved collaboration and connections between citizens and decision-makers at the watershed scale. The overarching goal is to provide alternatives to current systems of water governance and planning that are focused too narrowly on water—isolating the resource from its broader interactions across sectors and within ecosystems.

Watershed governance is emerging as a viable approach to achieving long-term sustainability. The WSP’s watershed governance work focuses on:

  • providing quality research that can help guide Canada's senior governments in their efforts to develop water sustainability through institutional, legal, and governance reform; and
  • creating and supporting opportunities for on-the-ground watershed groups to build their capacity to better engage in decision-making processes and to learn from similar groups in peer-to-peer learning environments.

Research Reports

December 2016

The Watersheds 2016 edited proceedings summarize key messages and content from the presentations and discussions heard at the Watersheds 2016 forum. This written record is not simply intended as a summary for those who attended the forum. Designed as a resource and reference document, the edited proceedings are for anyone researching or working on implementing innovative new decision-making practices and processes within their watershed.

November 2016

This report, authored by members of the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) and developed in partnership with the Gordon Foundation, provides a detailed examination of the key elements of the Alberta-Northwest Territories Mackenzie River Basin Bilateral Water Management Agreement. It describes what these will achieve and how they will be implemented. It also provides a broader understanding of the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement.


June 2016

Recent reports and events exploring the concept of watershed governance have laid a foundation for reform in British Columbia. However, considerable knowledge gaps still exist in turning concept into practice. Through an extensive investigation involving interviews, surveys, and a First Nations roundtable, this study illuminates the practical needs and capacities required to implement watershed governance in B.C. Key findings and critical insights include that the current system of water management and governance is not working, and that collaborative watershed governance is critical for better decision-making.

October 2015

This primer is a first step in establishing resources that practitioners can turn to when applying resilience thinking to watershed governance. It introduces key ideas associated with resilience and how they may be applied by those engaging in various facets of governance in Canada. Released by Brock University's Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, the primer is the product of collaboration involving Canadian and international researchers as well as Canadian watershed practitioners.

November 2014

The Watersheds 2014 edited proceedings organize and summarize the presentations given, questions raised, and discussions held during the forum. This written record is not simply intended as a summary for those who attended Watersheds 2014. It is also designed to be a resource and reference document for anyone researching or working on implementing innovative new decision-making practices and processes within their watershed.

January 2014

This compilation of research provides supplementary readings on watershed governance and selected related themes. It is a collection of existing research, reports, and water management and planning tools that were developed by researchers, governments, and water-focused organizations who were partners on the forum, Watersheds 2014: Towards Watershed Governance in British Columbia and Beyond, which was held in Duncan, B.C. in January 2014. 

January 2014

This report focuses on current water governance issues in British Columbia and offers a path forward for how the Province could transform its current approaches to decision-making to ensure a more sustainable and resilient future—especially given the provincial government’s commitment to new water legislation by later in 2014. It sets out a strategic 10-year program and proposes nine winning conditions to ensure success. Recognizing the unique institutional, legal, cultural, and geographic challenges of the province, this Blueprint outlines a timeline and clear milestones for moving towards watershed governance in B.C.

July 2013

This report compiles the perspectives and opinions of a diverse mix of British Columbia’s water leaders; a survey was sent to over 230 water groups and interviews were conducted with 11 selected water champions. Based on the responses received, there is a clear feeling amongst B.C.’s water leaders that the province has the potential to become a global leader in freshwater protection and sustainability. But, there are a number of challenges to achieving this vision. The authors present a series of recommendations for addressing key needs and gaps in the B.C. water community and for strengthening the collective water movement.

This report was co-published by the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance and the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, in partnership with the Polis Foundation, to better understand the capacity, needs, and priorities of the freshwater community in B.C., and to identify some priorities for building the necessary leadership and capacity for freshwater protection in the province.

March 2013

This research survey summary is the first phase in a larger project to assess the needs and priorities of watershed-based groups in British Columbia. It inventories and identifies many of the groups that are currently working at a watershed scale within B.C., and begins to determine the role these groups can play in more formalized decision-making going forward. This project was carried out by Brian Wilkes and Associates Ltd. with the support of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria.

May 2005

This report focuses on the enabling environment that ensures holistic water management is institutionally embedded. Water is the strategic resource of the 21st century and Canada stands “at a watershed” in freshwater management. Attitudes, institutions, and policies are changing, but an outdated supply-oriented paradigm still dominates. Ultimately, the goal is “ecological governance,” where natural ecosystem processes are carefully considered at all levels of decision-making. The strength of this report lies in the rich mosaic of experiences and examples from around the world where theory and concept inform practice.

Peer-Reviewed Articles

January 2016

Baird, J., Plummer, R., Moore, M-L., & Brandes, O.M. (2016). Introducing Resilience Practice to Watershed Groups: What are the Learning Effects? Society & Natural Resources, 1–16, available online January 26, 2016.


Resilience as an organizing framework for addressing dynamics of social-ecological systems has experienced strong uptake; however, its application is nascent. This research study aimed to address the gap between resilience thinking and practice by focusing on learning, a key aspect of resilience. Two Canadian watershed groups were led in 2-day workshops focused on resilience. Learning effects were measured using a survey administered both before and after the workshop, and a qualitative survey was administered 6 months later to understand longer term effects. Short-term learning effects were similar between the two case studies, with strong cognitive and relational learning and less normative learning. Longer term effects showed enduring cognitive and normative learning in both cases; however, relational learning persisted only in the watershed where a resilience practice approach to watershed planning had been incorporated. Future research directions include refinements to the learning measurement methodology and continuing to build resilience practice literature.

Article Access                                                                                                      

To download a copy of the full article, please click here.


February 2015

Plummer, R., Baird, J., Moore, M-L, Brandes, O.M., Imhof, J., & Krievens, K. (2015). Governance of Aquatic Systems: What Characterizes Resilience? International Journal of Water Governance, 4(2014), 1–18.

Aquatic environments embody the characteristics of complex social-ecological systems and as pressures on them intensify so does concern about their resilience. Resilience research has advanced the conceptual understanding of how aquatic systems function and underscored the need for an adaptive approach to management. More recently, a growing emphasis has been placed on resilience concepts in relation to water governance and thereby the broader social, political, and economic contexts in which aquatic systems are embedded. Using a two round online Delphi survey of global experts and water governance, this study identifies governance attributes that support specified and general resilience in aquatic systems, and describes practices or activities that enhance governance ability to respond to shocks and disturbances. The results of the Delphi study offer a prioritized list of attributes of governance for aquatic system governance resilience, including being adaptive, polycentric, inclusive and maintaining strong leadership. Similar to the attributes described in the existing literature on resilience and water governance, those identified through the Delphi remain somewhat abstract. This research highlights the need for future studies exploring how these concepts can be applied in practice and the extent to which they can be traded off.

Article Access
To download a copy of the full article, please click here.

July 2012

Brandes, O.M. (2012). Thinking Like a Watershed: Watershed Governance, the Future for Water Sustainability. In Roseland, M., Toward Sustainable Communities: Solutions for Citizens and their Governments, 4th Edition. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

November 2005

Brandes, O.M. (2005, November). At a Watershed: Ecological Governance and Sustainable Water Management in Canada. Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, 16(1), 79–97.


Uncertainty of future supplies, constraints to economic growth, increasing conflicts between users and evidence of emerging ecological impacts are some of the many problems being addressed in the water sector. To solve these problems requires a shift from supply-side management toward a more holistic and sustainable approach to water management. Published in the Spring of 2005 by the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria, At a Watershed, grapples with the challenge of making the transition from a supply to a demand management regime, and offers possible solutions to some of the conflicts between past policies and emerging scarcity. The focus of this report, the fourth in a series, is to present feasible strategies and innovative opportunities for reforming Canada's water management institutions toward a more holistic approach to sustainability based on the recognition that water is a limited and precious resource and must be conserved.

Case Studies

August 2014

This report is the first in a series that explores examples of watershed governance in action. The series explores how governance can evolve over time, and offers an understanding of specific successes, challenges, and barriers. This case study was inspired, in part, by the ongoing relationship between the Cowichan Watershed Board and the WSP. It offers a glimpse of the good work being done in the Cowichan watershed as the people there continue their efforts to build local trust, engage in genuine collaborative efforts to improve watershed management, and protect and enhance their home waters.

August 2013

This document discusses resilience thinking and provides a summary of a resilience analysis workshop held in June 2013 in the Cowichan watershed on Vancouver Island. The two-day workshop introduced local stakeholders to incorporating the resilience perspective into watershed management and governance.

The event was held at the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre in Duncan, B.C. and co-led by researchers from the University of Victoria's POLIS Project on Ecological Governance and Brock University's Environmental Sustainability Research Centre.

Policy Papers

August 2014

This briefing note draws on lessons learned from two resilience analysis workshops that were held in watersheds in New Brunswick and British Columbia in 2014. It provides a concise explanation of what resilience means in a watershed context and uses the workshop activities to demonstrate key concepts. It also describes the potential for using resilience concepts in watershed management and planning.

August 2014

By informing decision-makers in British Columbia about a number of decisions that must be made to ensure fundamental changes to the current model of governance in the province, this briefing note offers what is arguably the strategic path forward to ensure the new Water Sustainability Act is implemented to its fullest potential.

This decision-makers' brief draws, in large part, on conclusions from the WSP policy report A Blueprint for Watershed Governance in British Columbia (January 2014); dialogue and conclusions from the Watersheds 2014 forum (January 2014); as well as two separate independent investigations of watershed stewardship functions under existing legislation released by the Forest Practices Board and B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson in April 2014.

August 2012

This synthesis report summarizes key aspects of the discussions and themes explored at a two-day expert roundtable hosted by the WSP and the Water Policy and Governance Group in June 2012. The roundtable focused on the potential for developing a watershed-based approach to water and resource governance in British Columbia.

May 2009

This detailed policy paper explores the options and opportunities for water governance reform in British Columbia. The paper was developed to assist the Ministry of Environment with its commitment to address water management and modernize the 100-year-old Water Act that is no longer able to deal with existing and emerging water issues in the province.  Recognizing that governance alone cannot correct inadequate water management, but poor governance will almost certainly prevent effective management, the report outlines three possible paths forward and emphasizes the need to build institutional and ecosystem resilience.

April 2009

This introductory briefing note is authored by POLIS' partners at the Water Policy and Governance Group, Rob de Loë and Georgia Simms. This publication launched the multi-year, Canadian Water Netork research project, "Governance for Watershed-Based Source Water Protection in Canada: A National Assessment."

November 2006

Authored by the WSP's Oliver M. Brandes, this briefing note provides an overview of the concept of "watershed governance" and current water policy opportunities in Canada.

June 2006

A working paper, first presented at the Canadian Water Resources Association 59th Annual Conference in in Toronto, Ontario, June 4-7, 2006. The concept of  ecological governance is applied to investigate why and how current approaches to water allocation must evolve to address scarcity and protect ecosystems.


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