Our process helps Canada achieve sustainable development solutions that integrate environmental and economic considerations to ensure the lasting prosperity and well-being of our nation.


We rigorously research and conduct high quality analysis on issues of sustainable development. Our thinking is original and thought provoking.


We convene opinion leaders and experts from across Canada around our table to share their knowledge and diverse perspectives. We stimulate debate and integrate polarities. We create a context for possibilities to emerge.


We generate ideas and provide realistic solutions to advise governments, Parliament and Canadians. We proceed with resolve and optimism to bring Canada’s economy and environment closer together.

Charting a Course – Chapter 7: Collaborative Water Governance

Water governance refers to the processes and institutions through which decisions are made about water. This includes the range of political, organizational, and administrative processes used to make and implement decisions, as well as how decision makers are held accountable. This is different from water management, which refers to the operational, on-the-ground activity to regulate the water resource and the conditions of its use.52

The NRTEE set out to explore the potential of collaborative water governance approaches and how they might assist in achieving sustainable water use by the natural resources sectors. Our research provides insights into three areas:

1. the benefits and challenges of current collaborative water governance approaches;

2. governments’ and industries’ changing roles in water governance and management, and how a collaborative governance process might deal with these changes; and

3. circumstances under which collaborative water governance might be appropriate in the future.


The emergence of collaborative water governance models provides an opportunity to improve the way we manage water in Canada and brings the flexibility required for addressing regional and local particularities. It allows for a more localized planning process, which promotes better-informed, place-based decisions and facilitates the involvement of a wider range of stakeholders. Collaborative water governance structures are often associated with watershed management, as the watershed offers a relevant scale for the involvement of local and regional stakeholders. A number of Canadian jurisdictions have recently developed province- or territory-wide water strategies including Québec (2002)53, Alberta (2003)54, Manitoba (2003)55, British Columbia (2008)56, and, most recently, Nova Scotia57 and the Northwest Territories (2010)58. Many of these strategies include collaborative water governance initiatives, often involving the creation of watershed-based organizations.

While provinces have some type of watershed-based organizations, the role and responsibilities of these groups varies from place to place. In Alberta, for example, the Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) are recognized in the province’s water strategy and work toward watershed management plans that may eventually be legislated. In contrast, British Columbia’s watershed-scale organizations operate independently from one another without a common policy basis. Some, like the Okanagan Basin Water Board, are enshrined in provincial legislation and have taxation powers, while others in the province are purely voluntary. Provinces with a formal, jurisdiction-wide watershed governance process include Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, and New Brunswick. Often, the shift toward watershed-scale decision making also includes a change from top-down “command and control” types of governance structures to bottom-up, collaborative governance structures.

Provinces that have mandated participation or specified which categories of stakeholders should participate in water governance include Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Québec. Other provinces strongly encourage watershed groups to include a variety of stakeholders, but this inclusion is not mandated, nor are the categories of stakeholders specified.


Collaborative water governance can take on many forms and functions, differentiated primarily by two key characteristics:

1. the degree of non-governmental participation, and

2. the degree of delegation of decision-making power.

Figure 25 illustrates the range of potential governance models that are possible based on these two factors, from which four models are defined:

A. Traditional governance exists where government controls all decision making. Nongovernment participants are involved on a limited basis, typically by invitation only, and often with a high proportion of technical experts. The governance process is usually time-limited, with a very specific and often narrow mandate. Most governments in Canada have moved away from this model.

B. Multi-level collaborative governance involves many orders of government, with a broader goal of improving water-management outcomes. Typically this involves collaboration between a range of governmental — and sometimes non-governmental — stakeholders over a relatively long time period. Usually a forum is created in which information is shared and management actions are discussed and negotiated, but formal government agencies retain decision-making power. Existing government partners act under their respective jurisdictions and legislative mandates and appoint representatives to the collaborative process. Examples include the Fraser Basin Council in British Columbia and the Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative for the Bras d’Or Lakes in Nova Scotia.

C. Consultative governance, which covers problem-focused governmental initiatives, is intended to provide specific inputs for policy reform. The primary goal is extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, where governments consult with stakeholders, but do not share decision-making power. Typically of limited duration, the mandate of these initiatives is normally constrained. There is generally no legislative basis for any organization formed under a consultative governance approach. An example is New Brunswick’s Watershed Groups, which carry out extensive work to classify streams in their watershed but have no formal or regulatory role.

D. Delegated governance involves formalized, autonomous bodies with implementation power for water-management decisions, often with larger budgets than the other types of collaborative water governance. A range of governmental and private stakeholders groups is typically represented. Unlike other collaborative governance arrangements, these bodies are formal governmental agencies, often mandated by specific legislation. The Okanagan Basin Water Board provides an example of such a model.


Figure 25: Approaches to Collaborative Water Governance

These categories are illustrative only, as it is often difficult to assign a specific governance model to one of the four categories. For example, Québec’s Watershed Organizations fall somewhere in the midst of multi-level governance, the consultative governance, and the delegated governance categories. In addition, governance models may fall within the same broad category, but still be different in their level of delegation or participation.


The NRTEE, in collaboration with four watershed organizations, explored how collaborative water governance might assist in achieving more sustainable water use by the natural resource sectors. Our research was informed by a series of watershed-based workshops held in Alberta (North Saskatchewan River Watershed), British Columbia (Okanagan Basin), Nova Scotia (Bras d’Or Lakes), and Québec (Saint-François River Watershed). We convened a broad range of stakeholders involved in collaborative water governance initiatives, including governments of all levels, non-governmental organizations, natural resources sectors, and other interested citizens. These workshops allowed the NRTEE to go beyond the theory and learn from handson experiences across the country.

The findings from the four watershed-based workshops were consistently similar. Despite some regional differences — mainly expressed through the different nature of the socio-economic reality in each watershed — the key issues and concepts identified in Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Québec were often the same. Our report therefore builds on this national consistency and does not describe regional differences. More information on the detailed findings of each workshop can be found in an internal report commissioned by the NRTEE.60 Our research also included an online expert panel consultation. In this exercise, representatives from the natural resource sectors provided input on specific questions similar to those discussed during the watershed-specific workshops. The purpose of assembling this panel of industry experts was to build on their practical experience and better understand the views and opinions of the natural resource sectors on collaborative water governance in Canada.

Finally, our research was informed by the outcomes of a national workshop held in February 2010 that explored the role of the natural resource sectors in collaborative water governance. The remainder of this chapter describes our key findings from this comprehensive consultation and engagement process on collaborative water governance. More than 140 stakeholders from all regions of Canada participated and provided input throughout this process.


This chapter reports our findings from a series of workshops held in Penticton (B.C.), Edmonton (Alberta), Sydney (Nova Scotia), and Sherbrooke (Québec), in collaboration with local watershed organizations.


Located in central British Columbia, the Okanagan is a semi-arid, snow-dependent watershed that faces extremes of water abundance and scarcity. Irrigation of various forms accounts for 86% of water consumption, with the agriculture sector being the largest single consumer (55%), followed by domestic outdoor irrigation (24%). The Okanagan Basin Water Board was initiated in 1968 and mandated with the tasks of identifying and resolving critical water issues. The Board of Directors includes representatives from the three Okanagan regional districts, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, the Water Supply Association of BC and the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council.


The North Saskatchewan River watershed is one of the major drainage basins in Alberta. Its total drainage area is about 57,000 km2. Originating in the ice fields of Banff National Park, it flows easterly through Alberta to join the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan. It is home to about one-third of Alberta’s population and runs through 86 municipalities. It contributes to about 60% of the province’s energy generation including two major hydroelectric reservoirs and three coal-fired electricity generating plants, alongside large forestry, agricultural, petrochemical, and oil and gas sectors. The North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance was incorporated as a non-profit society in 2000. It was designated the official Watershed Planning and Advisory Council (BRAS D’OR LAKES

The Bras d’Or Lakes is an estuarine environment. The 3,500- km2 watershed includes parts of the Cape Breton Highlands at hundreds of metres elevation, down to sea-level salt marshes and barrachois (a coastal lagoon that is separated from the ocean by a sand bar). Human activity within this area is diverse, and includes mining, farming, fishing, tourism, hunting, arts and crafts, and wind farms. The Bras d’Or Lakes Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative (CEPI) was initiated in 2003 by a group made up of representatives from federal and provincial governments, First Nations, community groups, academics, and residents. CEPI is unique in that it incorporates expertise from both western science and First Nations knowledge, an approach referred to as “two-eyed seeing.”


This watershed is located in southeastern Québec and covers 10,499 km2, 14% of which is located in the United States. The Saint-François River originates from Lac Saint-François and flows northward to empty into the Saint-Lawrence River. The basin includes 102 municipalities but the main land uses in the basin are forest (66%) and agricultur (23%). The Conseil de gouvernance de l’eau des bassins versants de la rivière Saint-François (COGESAF)’s mandate is framed by the province’s 2002 Politique nationale de l’eau and the subsequent 2009 Loi affirmant le caractère collectif des ressources en eau et visant à renforcer leur protection. Together, these provincial-scale initiatives established 33 (now 40) priority basins in the province, of which the Saint-François River Basin is one.

Although COGESAF’s plans are developed at the basin scale, the organization also oversees and coordinates planning and management at the sub-basin scale.



Collaborative water governance can help to build trust, increase understanding, and prevent or reduce conflict. Collaborative governance builds friendships, alliances, and understanding between diverse groups. In turn, developing relationships leads to reduced conflict. This is, in part, predicated on the potential for learning afforded by the collaborative water governance process, which provides an opportunity for diverse stakeholders to work toward common visions, goals, and mutual understanding. Those involved learn to better appreciate the specific challenges other individuals and organizations have to face. Innovation also arises from the cross-pollination of ideas and mutual education.

Collaborative processes can help improve decision making and long-term planning at the watershed level. They provide for a more informed governing body that is better equipped to plan for the future and address upcoming challenges. Collaborative water governance can be a crucially important mechanism for setting priorities at the watershed level and offering a mechanism for allocating financial and human resources to address water-management issues.

Collaborative water governance is seen as a central mechanism for integrated land and water management, from which to address the interrelationship between issues (e.g., food security and water security), resolve problems, and integrate water management within a broader framework of ecological management and action.

For firms in the natural resource sectors, uncertainty about the future direction of regulatory frameworks presents challenges, as strategic planning requires knowledge of the regulatory environment for many years into the future. Collaborative approaches can provide insights into future regulatory direction if the process has clearly established roles and connects to broader, strategic policy-making processes.


Challenges of collaborative water governance include changing membership over time (both in number and in representation); lack of data; fragmentation of data; uneven stakeholder representation; jurisdictional fragmentation; and tensions between the perceived advantages of autonomy and decision-making authority, and the desirability of oversight, direction, and support from the province.

Fair representation is often noted as a challenge. For example, there are challenges associated with working with small municipalities who have jurisdiction over a small area of land within a watershed, but who have much greater authority in terms of land-use planning and water regulation. Similarly, larger municipalities present a challenge in that they may dominate a particular basin demographically and economically, yet still only have a single seat at the table — creating an artificial equality.

The consensus-driven approach can be a strength but it can also be a weakness. On the one hand, this approach leads to more buy-in, learning, and trust. On the other hand, the approach is at times slow, cumbersome, and expensive. Similarly, the lack of mandated authority has two edges. Because it has little vested authority, a watershed organization is usually respected as a neutral convener. However, the lack of mandated authority means that it cannot always act on issues that the public perceives to be within its area of responsibility. Moreover, the lack of vested authority implies that the governing body can do little to help with one of the major governance challenges identified in various watersheds: the lack of coordination and synchronization between water-related policies and planning processes of different government agencies.

Engaging in collaborative processes is seen as a resource-intensive investment for the participating industries. Multiple regional and local processes, often across a wide geographical area, require staff time, information and research, and travel investments. For firms operating in many provinces this can represent a particularly large investment. To continue their participation in the long term, firms need to see a clear return on this investment, particularly as they engage in collaborative processes in parallel to fulfilling regulatory requirements applied to their industry. Clearly defined objectives, outcomes, and results from collaborative approaches, and clearer understanding of how these processes fit within existing regulatory frameworks can help address this concern, and keep industries engaged in collaborative governance initiatives.

Finally, there are specific instances when trust could be diminished within a collaborative governance process, particularly when rules governing accountability and roles are unclear. Designing the right governance “rules of engagement” is as important as bringing the right people to the table.



Despite the fact that provincial governments have been investing in collaborative governance processes, participants in such arrangements often express frustration at the perceived lack of ongoing provincial guidance. Issues of transparency and accessibility surrounding the process — particularly roles and responsibility of government — are always raised as conducive to success.


Collaborative water governance is appropriate when

  • input from multiple stakeholders into decision making on “big picture” or strategic issues is required;
  • long-term commitment from multiple stakeholders is required;
  • policy frameworks are being developed; or
  • watershed plans are being developed.

Collaborative water governance works when

  • rights, responsibilities, mandates, and rules are clear;
  • relationships are emphasized over hierarchies;
  • common objectives and benefits can be defined;
  • participants recognize the need to make decisions at a specific scale;
  • stable funding is available to support the collaborative process; and
  • participants share a commitment to sustainable water governance

Collaborative water governance may not work or be appropriate when

  • not all participants are willing to come to the table;
  • the process is used by certain groups to delay action or hinder policy processes;
  • no processes exist for conflict resolution;
  • power imbalances exist;
  • clarity is lacking about authority for decision making;
  • federal and provincial policy is not aligned with municipal or watershed organizations’ objectives;
  • a crisis situation requires immediate action; or
  • there is a well-defined problem that can be easily dealt with by a government department.

The following suggestions to help improve future collaborative processes – for both provincial and federal governments — were developed from input the NRTEE received at its watershed workshops.

For provincial governments:

  • clarifying collaborative governance processes in legislation, including accountability guidelines;
  • providing stable funding for collaborative water governance initiatives; and
  • reforming water allocation licences.

For the federal government, future roles could focus on

  • improving data collection, monitoring, and analyses;
  • harmonizing water quality and water availability assessment tools across Canada (where possible); and
  • placing a greater emphasis on public education.

First Nations governments and peoples play an increasingly important role in collaborative water governance in Canada. Although First Nations’ water rights — including rights of governance and control — are still being interpreted and defined in negotiations and by the legal system, it is clear that new duties apply to governments with respect to First Nations and water. Any activity that could potentially infringe on these rights requires consultations with the rights holders, and this includes water-management decision-making processes. In many regions across Canada, First Nations are engaging directly in water governance, working with or encouraging collaboration with other governments and partners through watershed planning, water-source protection planning, and water-management initiatives.

First Nations’ cultural and spiritual values make them excellent contributors to collaborative water governance processes seeking to reconcile the needs of various users with the needs of the ecosystems, for the present and the future. First Nations and Indigenous knowledge could contribute substantively to

  • our understanding of the health and functioning of the watershed;
  • our approaches for effective collaboration;
  • the identification of values and priorities; and,
  • the successful and co-operative implementation of actions and solutions.

Their participation in collaborative water governance is therefore essential for success.


The natural resource sectors have been involved in collaborative processes for a long time and see the value of such processes as being dependent on various factors. They believe that the benefits of collaboration need to be clearly demonstrated. They also emphasize the critical need to provide contextually appropriate incentives for industry participation in water governance processes. Similarly to other stakeholders, firms in the natural resources sectors require greater clarity with respect to expectations and roles and responsibilities in water governance.

Industry’s participation in collaborative water governance forums is not guaranteed and may remain limited until governments mandate such processes. Several issues can explain such limited participation. One important factor is that for some industry sectors, the benefits of participation seem both limited and unclear. Corporations respond strongly to signals from governments and regulatory mechanisms. If they believe that water governance is not a government priority, then they will not consider it a priority and will likely not participate.

Another issue is the amount of time and resources required to participate in those processes, which often leads to “volunteer burnout” in the non-governmental stakeholders. This has implications, as companies will be reluctant to invest time and money in a process that does not have a good chance of success. Incentives are required to ensure participation from all relevant natural resources sectors in order to improve involvement in, and acceptance of, the collaborative water governance process.

The NRTEE partnered with the Water Policy and Governance Group (WPGG ) at the University of Waterloo to examine the explicit implications of collaborative approaches to water governance for firms in the natural resource sectors and the implications of their involvement for collaborative processes. The research contributes to the NRTEE’s research, as well as to that of the WPGG ’s on-going study of Governance for Source Water Protection in Canada. Twenty-one participants from across Canada representing natural resource sector firms in the mining, oil and gas, forestry and electricity generation sectors are taking part in an online multiround “Policy Delphi” forum. Using a web-based survey, panel members interact anonymously with each other, allowing for a more thorough and open examination of key questions and concerns. This research design helps to tease out areas of agreement and disagreement between participants. Preliminary results illustrate the complex relationship that firms in the natural resource sectors have with collaborative approaches to water governance. Collaborative approaches offer many opportunities, but do not come without costs as evidenced by key themes emerging from the research:

  • The two-way dialogue that collaborative processes permit offers opportunities to exchange information, perceptions, and ideas. This allows firms to engage with stakeholders, build relationships, dispel false perceptions, and advance their perspective. It also provides opportunities to listen and learn from the experience of others.
  • Collaborative processes allow firms to engage in decision-making processes from the beginning, permitting them to shape the perceptions of other engaged stakeholders and to ensure that their position, perspective, expertise, experience, and information are incorporated throughout the decision-making process.
  • Natural resource sector firms identified one of their biggest challenges as the uncertainty about the future direction of regulatory frameworks, noting that strategic planning requires knowledge of the regulatory environment for many years in the future.

Collaborative approaches can provide a key insight into the future regulatory direction, but only if the process has clearly established roles and connections to broader policy-making processes.

  • Engaging in collaborative processes is a resource-heavy investment for firms in the natural resource sectors. Multiple regional and local processes across a wide geographical area require staff time, information and research, and travel investments. For firms operating in more than one province or watershed, this can represent a particularly large investment. Participating over the long term requires a clear return on this investment, particularly as firms engage in collaborative processes in parallel to fulfilling the regulatory requirements applied to their industry. Clearly defined objectives, outcomes, and results from collaborative approaches, and clearer understanding of how these processes fit within existing regulatory frameworks can help address this concern.
  • Natural resource sector firms acknowledge that decision making through collaborative processes has its limitations. Such processes may not work well when parties are not willing to come to an agreement or consensus. In this instance, government may still have a responsibility to act.
  • On the following two pages is a summary of the “key elements of successful collaborative governance for sustainable development”, prepared by the NRTEE and the Public Policy Forum. It has relevance and applicability to collaborative water governance.


1 ) Focus on clear outcomes

Collaborative processes must be focused on clear, measurable outcomes. Collaboration for collaboration’s sake leads nowhere. Citizens will commit to a process that is expected to yield clear, real results.

2 ) Find the right convenor

Collaborative processes need a convenor that is credible, neutral, and trustworthy. The convenor must be able to bring the right players to the table and establish a process that will enable progress. Governments are often best placed to convene, but not always; sometimes others are better positioned to convene collaborative processes.

3 ) Bring the right people together

Collaborative processes must have the right players at the table. The process does not have to include every possible relevant stakeholder, but the process will not generate solutions that are successful in the long term if it excludes key interests.

4 ) Ensure real commitment

Every participant must commit fully to the collaborative process. This means a commitment from all participants to see the process through, to act on the results, and to find solutions together through the collaborative process.

5 ) Create clear rules and scope

Collaboration depends on clearly defined and agreed upon goals, rules, and scope. Success requires clarity on the goals; it requires clarity on timelines, so that discussions are not open-ended; it requires clarity on roles and responsibilities, so that participants understand what is expected of them; and it requires clarity on the rules of the process, so that participants can police each others’ actions and avoid conflict.

6 ) Foster shared ownership and accountability

Collaborative processes must develop a shared ownership and accountability for the process and the resulting policy solutions. Collaboration means that the participants are taking responsibility as a group for solving their problems together.

7 ) Build legitimacy

Collaborative initiatives must be — and must be seen as being — legitimate processes. Success depends on developing two forms of legitimacy. Internal legitimacy derives from having the right participants and good processes with clear, transparent, and fair rules. External legitimacy is gained through some level of recognition and backing from established democratic institutions.

8 ) Establish ongoing dialogue

Collaborative processes should establish ongoing dialogue and engagement. Ongoing processes create trust and build on past success. They enable evaluation and continuous learning from the successes and shortcomings of the past.

Source: NRTEE. 2010b. Progress Through Process: Achieving Sustainable Development Together.


Effective collaborative water governance requires involvement from a broad range of stakeholders whose participation is not always guaranteed. As for other stakeholders, representatives from the natural resource sectors need some incentives to remain committed to such processes. They want to see alignment with other planning processes such as municipal land use planning or forest management plans. To encourage participation in collaborative water governance, governments need to demonstrate strong leadership and act on the recommendations provided by the collaborative process.

Collaborative water governance is a tool to be selected in particular situations, not a panacea for all water governance challenges. It requires time and dedicated resources, as well as clear rules and guidance from governments. To be successful, the mandate, scope, and role of collaborative groups must be clearly stated in written documents. Collaborative governance in name only — without clear objectives and accountability rules, without stakeholder or government support, in a conflict-ridden situation, and without a spirit of collaboration — has the potential to make things worse, not better. But future water-management challenges require consideration of more inclusive decision-making processes as a means to identify shared problems and potential solutions. Collaborative governance approaches for water management need to be considered.



52 Nowlan 2007

53 Gouvernement du Québec 2002

54 Government of Alberta 2003

55 Government of Manitoba 2003

56 Government of British Columbia 2008

57 Government of Nova Scotia 2010

58 Government of Northwest Territories 2010

59 Nowlan 2007

60 Bakker 2011