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Bridging the Hierarchical and Collaborative Divide: Learning in California's Integrated Regional Water Management Process


Collaborative governance holds promise for generating learning and innovative solutions to complex resource management challenges. However, attending to the cross-scale dynamics of many environmental problems requires local or regional-scale networks to engage with state or national level government agencies, which are often hierarchical in structure. California’s Integrated Regional Water Management process has sought to encourage local water agencies to collaborate at a regional level in order to build a collective understanding of water management problems and define their own priorities and actions. At the same time, to demonstrate public accountability, the state government has required regions to comply with complex requirements to develop plans and apply for project funds, which may constrain learning and innovation.

This dissertation examines the extent to which learning is occurring in the midst of these tensions. It focuses particular attention on how regional-level capacity for managing a network can help to mediate between hierarchical and collaborative governance forms to enable learning. Analysis of a sample of 19 out of the 48 water planning regions in California revealed that centralized network structures were associated with higher levels of investment in network management activities. Learning was assessed in two case study regions in the Central Valley with respect to three IRWM program goals embedded in IRWM requirements: building a regional vision for water management, promoting environmental stewardship, and addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities. This analysis indicated that a committed and trusted lead agency with staff dedicated to managing a collaborative process played a crucial role in generating learning around these themes. This lead agency helped to bridge the hierarchical and collaborative divide in three ways: by brokering across regional and state-level interests, developing processes that transform external requirements into learning opportunities, and supporting the development of informal dynamics in addition to ensuring formal rule compliance. This research improves our understanding of how networks function in the context of hybrid governance arrangements with collaborative and hierarchical features. It also delineates critical elements of adaptive governance structures that can support learning to manage multi-scalar environmental problems.

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