Drivers and Implications for Water Governance: A case study of the western Lake Erie basin
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The purpose of this study was to better understand drivers of water problems and their implications for water governance scholarship and practice. Drivers here are identified as social and environmental forces affecting a system, such as a Great Lakes basin. Eutrophication in the western Lake Erie basin provides the empirical setting to achieve the study purpose, using the following objectives: (i) identify drivers of eutrophication in the western Lake Erie basin, (ii) determine whether these drivers are taken into account in nutrient management efforts, and (iii) assess the relationships among drivers and water governance. Two parallel cases of nutrient management, in the Canadian and United States’ (US) portions of the western basin, are explored using policy Delphi surveys with practitioners and researchers, and content analysis of formal nutrient management documents such as strategies and agreements. Findings from the research revealed that nutrient management efforts are identifying many of the same drivers (e.g., agricultural operations) that emerged from the data. Overlaps between the US and Canadian case studies indicate a shared understanding of the causes of eutrophication in the western Lake Erie basin. Areas of overlap between the policy Delphi surveys and document analyses within each of the case studies indicate shared perspectives from experts and formal nutrient management documents. These overlaps were expected, since Lake Erie is a transboundary body of water shared between Canada and the US, and the two countries have worked together for over a century to address water quality and quantity concerns through binational agreements and agencies. However, there were also differences in the sets of identified drivers of eutrophication that raised questions about the strength of shared understandings both within and between the US and Canadian case studies. For example, some drivers identified in the Canadian policy Delphi were not identified in the Canadian document analysis or in the US case study. These gaps indicate areas where nutrient management in the western Lake Erie basin could be improved through coordinated efforts to develop shared problem framings of eutrophication. The study findings empirically demonstrate the importance of identifying drivers when addressing water problems as well as the challenges that can occur when problem framings are mismatched within and across jurisdictions. When determining whether these drivers of eutrophication are taken into account by nutrient management efforts in the western Lake Erie basin, a similar pattern emerged. There was agreement among both the US and Canadian policy Delphi surveys and document analyses that several major drivers of eutrophication are taken into account in nutrient management efforts by multiple mechanisms ranging from research to regulation, including efforts involving agricultural operations. However, gaps were identified both within and between the US and Canadian case studies on whether some drivers of eutrophication are taken into account by nutrient management efforts. The concept of sufficiency emerged from Canadian and US policy Delphi participants. In this way, a driver may be taken into account to some extent, but these efforts were identified as insufficient to mitigate the driver as a cause of eutrophication. Together, these findings raise questions about the effectiveness of nutrient management efforts in the western Lake Erie basin. Specifically, the results suggest that the persistence of eutrophication may be due at least in part to a failure to take drivers into account. From the policy Delphi survey and document analysis data, evidence also emerged regarding the relationships between drivers and water governance. Existing framings of eutrophication do not explicitly identify water governance as a driver of eutrophication. The results demonstrated that water governance could be a driver of eutrophication, for example by shaping nutrient management actions. The results also showed that there are dynamic relationships among drivers of eutrophication and the water governance system, with influences moving bidirectionally across levels and scales. This empirical demonstration contributes to the currently understudied subject of driver directionality in the social-ecological systems and water governance literatures. This research makes several contributions to the water governance and SES literatures. The dissertation contributes to emerging discussions in the water governance literature on the importance of identifying and accounting for drivers, including their relationships with water governance, when addressing water problems. There are currently knowledge gaps on characterizing drivers within specific contexts and understanding the relationships between driver perception and management. I address these gaps by identifying the drivers of eutrophication in the western Lake Erie basin and determining whether those drivers are taken into account by nutrient management efforts. The use of the document analyses in combination with the policy Delphi surveys was a methodological approach that has not been widely used. In this research, the two methods provided nuanced and novel perspectives on drivers of eutrophication. In the eutrophication literature broadly, and in discussions of Lake Erie specifically, drivers of eutrophication are often framed as biophysical or socioeconomic factors. The identification of the water governance system and nutrient management efforts, including actors, policies, and program effectiveness, as drivers of eutrophication in the western Lake Erie basin is a contribution to the eutrophication literature that is unique to this research. This identification and characterization of water governance systems as a driver also adds value to other explorations of water problems and their associated water governance systems. Overall, the research contributes to understandings in the water governance literature on the relationships that exist between water governance and drivers by demonstrating that these relationships are bidirectional and exist across scales. The empirical findings of the research demonstrate the utility of regional case studies for filling identified knowledge gaps in the SES literature on understanding how drivers interact, how governance affects solutions to water problems, and how these relationships have influence across scales, as well as demonstrating the need for additional research. The findings of this research also have implications for the empirical practice of water governance in the western Lake Erie basin. By identifying gaps in identifying drivers and accounting for drivers through nutrient management efforts, the research identifies opportunities to improve nutrient management efforts and water quality outcomes in the western Lake Erie basin. Specifically, there are differences in how drivers of eutrophication are understood and taken into account by nutrient management efforts. These differences indicate that work is necessary both within the Canadian and US jurisdictions as well as binationally to deepen the shared understanding of eutrophication and how its causes are perceived. To improve water quality in the western Lake Erie basin, it is necessary to critically examine nutrient management effectiveness and incorporate the novel drivers of eutrophication identified by the research into framings of eutrophication as well as nutrient management solutions.
Cite this version of the work
Erin Mills (2022). Drivers and Implications for Water Governance: A case study of the western Lake Erie basin. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/18475