Assessing institutions for aquatic ecosystem protection: A case study of the Oldman River Basin, Alberta
Policies to protect aquatic ecosystems have proven difficult to implement. This is particularly so in semi-arid regions where water supplies are limited and demands high. The failure of such policies has serious consequences both for aquatic ecosystems and for the people who depend on them. This research investigates the factors that shape the development and implementation of policies for aquatic ecosystem protection in a semi-arid region. It does so by integrating insights from political ecology, human ecology and common property scholarship in a novel theoretical framework that helps to unravel the complex web of cultural, historical and political processes underlying environmental institutions. This integrated framework guides an empirical investigation in the Oldman River Basin (ORB), Alberta. Evidence gathered from 72 documents, 56 key informant interviews, and personal observations from 14 conferences, workshops and watershed tours reveals two sets of eight factors that have impeded progress toward aquatic ecosystem protection in the ORB. The first set of factors focuses on broad contextual influences. These include (1) the ongoing decentralization of water management in Alberta; (2) historically-entrenched positions of power; (3) micro-politics among key actors and organizations; (4) cultural history and identity; (5) application of legal mechanisms; (6) existing water infrastructure and allocations; (7) current aquatic ecosystem condition; and, (8) climate change and future water availability. The second set of influences, referred to as implementation factors, explain the limited extent to which aquatic ecosystem protection policies are being implemented. These include (1) clarity of the actors' roles; (2) communication; (3) the definition of key terms; (4) funding and organizational capacity; (5) leadership; (6) the formal institutional environment; (7) data and monitoring; and, (8) public education. An assessment of the relative significance of these two sets of factors indicates that, in many cases, the contextual factors contradict the course of action recommended by study participants and in the documents reviewed for overcoming the barriers identified as factors affecting implementation. Alternative recommendations are made which have major implications for water management in the ORB. In addition, these recommendations speak to the importance of considering context in human-environment research.