The Adaptive Water Governance Project: Assessing Law, Resilience and Governance in Regional Socio-Ecological Water Systems Facing a Changing Climate

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Nov 04, 2014
Cosens, Barbara A. and Gunderson, Lance and Chaffin, Brian C.

The article will summarize the findings of the Adaptive Water Governance Project, an interdisciplinary project bringing together legal and resilience scholars. The AWG project explores means to link ecological resilience and the law and policy governing the process of water management in complex, multi-jurisdictional water basins. The project focuses on assessing resilience to climate change in six North American water basins which provide examples of heavily regulated and developed social-ecological system. A common goal that informs the work of the AWG team is to meet the challenge of posing solutions in recognition of the fact that we do not write on a clean slate. Rather than propose a new form of governance, we focus on bridging existing governance to proposed approaches asking how we might get there from here. The perspective legal scholars bring to the study of resilience and adaptive governance is the recognition that legal systems, while establishing boundaries and fostering a primary goal of economic and social stability, nevertheless are inherently adaptable and have throughout history responded to new challenges. The AWG Project asks four questions on the role of law in adaptive governance. (1) What is the role of law in setting boundaries by identifying approaching thresholds or tipping points in the system? (2) What is the role of law in creating either a disturbance or window of opportunity in which adaptive forms of governance may emerge? (3) What is the role of law in presenting barriers to adaptive forms of governance? (4) What is the role of law in facilitating adaptive forms of governance? Our basin assessments reveal the role of law in: establishing boundaries, that once crossed, signal approaching thresholds; in creating conditions for establishment of rights that alter expectations sufficiently to open a window to new and sometimes collaborative approaches to water governance; in providing an avenue for the development of new process tools to facilitate emergence of adaptive forms of governance; and in presenting barriers to adaptation as a result of rigid and fragmented authority.

Article forthcoming. Abstract can be accessed at:

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