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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From water to watershed : an analysis of rescaled water governance in Canada Cohen, Alice


Recent water governance reforms (in Canada and internationally) promote a shift from political to watershed boundaries for the purposes of water governance. This ‘watershed approach’ typically includes a shift from political to hydrologic boundaries, increased extra-governmental participation in decision-making, and some degree of delegation to watershed-scale organizations. This dissertation analyzes the uptake of the watershed approach in four Canadian jurisdictions: Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and answers the following research question: why has rescaling to watersheds occurred, and what are its governance implications? The empirical analysis employs primary data derived from legislative and policy reviews, as well as from forty-nine in-depth interviews with representatives from provincial governments, watershed-scale organizations, and non-governmental organizations in four case study provinces. The theoretical framework of the dissertation draws on – and engages with – recent debates about scale, governance, environmental management, and political ecology. On this basis, the dissertation makes three interrelated arguments. The first argument is that the justifications for choosing a watershed approach are often ambiguous. Specifically, Chapter 3 of the dissertation highlights a conceptual slippage between watersheds’ development as a technical tool and uptake as a governance framework. The second argument is that the widespread appeal of watersheds can be explained, at least in part, by their status as boundary objects (defined as a common or shared concept interpreted differently by different groups). And third, the dissertation argues that the implications of rescaled water governance can usefully advance current conceptualizations of rescaling by informing debates with respect to the political ecology of scale. Together, these arguments contribute to current knowledge by pointing to a new approach to the study of watersheds. Moreover, the synthetic findings of the dissertation make a key contribution to practical and conceptual debates about rescaling by drawing connections between the reasons for, and implications of, rescaled water governance. In particular, the research suggests that the reasons for watersheds’ uptake do not align with the governance implications associated with their implementation.

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