Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UCLA Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUCLA

Social-Ecological and Institutional Barriers to Adaptive Water Management


The management of water poses unique and changing challenges for public administrators. New understanding of environmental degradation and climate change demands environmental restoration and protection, water conservation and system sustainability. To achieve this, integrated and adaptive management policies are being enacted. In 2002 California created the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) Program to drive the transition to integrated water management in the state. The Program has since supported billions of dollars being spent on integrated planning and project implementation. Designed to reveal that integrated planning and shared governance was more efficient over the long term, the IRWM Program is a transition management policy.

As a professional participant in the IRWM Program and four of the regions in Greater Los Angeles between 2008-2015, I observed uneven responses to the Program’s design and goals. This research explores the unevenness as being a result of the character and make-up of the collaborative groups, the role of spatial and social scales on adaptive management efforts, and how participants perceive nature and the city. Through participant observation, content analysis and anonymous semi-structured interviews this research uses four IRWM regions as case studies that took different approaches, driven by local context, to execute the same program.

Though the regions are dissimilar in many ways, the transition from traditional water management to integrated management is comparable between the regions. The findings suggest that the structure and management scale of the new collaborative institution and the diversity of participating organizations are important characteristics that should be implemented with deliberation. So too, building trust between participants and providing shared learning of the social-ecological water system are critical to producing an integrated management effort.

For the transition to integrated water management to succeed in California, the program must more strongly influence how regional collaborations form and empower themselves. Additionally, the program must both demand and provide resources to support the building of trust among participants while strengthening knowledge of the complexity of managing social-natural water. Recent strategic planning by the State suggests that these needs have been observed and will be implemented in future years.

The case studies reveal a confluence point for several lines of theory, as well. The nature of institutional transitions in sustainability contexts benefits from consciously confronting social-natural scales, and perception of social-nature. So too, exploration of the role of politics in urban ecological systems is strengthened when aspects of administration and state capacity are included. In this blending, the uneven response to the IRWM Program in the case-study regions is accurately described.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View