Environmental Management

, Volume 64, Issue 4, pp 470–482 | Cite as

Exploring the Multiple Meanings of Adaptive Management: A Case Study of the Lachlan Catchment in the Murray–Darling Basin

  • J. SchoemanEmail author
  • C. Allan
  • C. M. Finlayson


Managing rivers and sharing their benefits is largely dependent on stakeholder values and knowledge, expressed through policy, governance and institutions. Adaptive management is essentially a social learning process, which can provide a tool to navigate the ‘wickedness’ of contemporary social-ecological challenges. This research applied an interpretive, qualitative approach to examine government intentions for adaptive management, as expressed in water policy documents, and practitioner experiences of learning through adaptive management in a case study of water management in the Lachlan catchment, Murray–Darling Basin, Australia. Data were created from content analysis of government water policy documents and interviews with key water managing and policy stakeholders. Interview participants attached divergent meanings to the concept of adaptive management. Five different ‘styles’ of adaptive management were found to coexist in the Lachlan catchment, which were associated with different levels of learning. While some learning was ad hoc, there was also promising evidence of more active adaptive management of environmental flows, which was resulting in higher-level learning. The findings highlight a disconnect between how adaptive management is understood in the academic literature, by practitioners, and how it is portrayed in Australian water policy, which is restricting opportunities for higher-level learning. Transformative learning was found to occur in response to crisis, rather than being linked to an intentional learning process.


Learning Adaptive management Stakeholder participation Environmental flows Murray–Darling Basin 



We thank the interview participants who donated their time and energy to make this research possible. We also offer thanks to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. The work was funded through a Charles Sturt University Faculty of Science PhD Scholarship and a Charles Sturt University Writing Up Award. We would also like to acknowledge support from staff of the Central Tablelands Local Land Services (previously the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary Information


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environmental SciencesCharles Sturt UniversityAlburyAustralia
  2. 2.Institute for Land, Water and SocietyCharles Sturt UniversityAlburyAustralia

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