Reconciliation of development and ecosystems: the ecology of governance in the International Columbia River Basin


This article explores the emergence of formal and informal bridging organizations to facilitate solutions to water conflict at the scale of the water resource. This new approach to governance is of particular importance on rivers within or shared by countries in which water management is fragmented among national and sub-national levels of government as well as among governmental sectors. This article focuses on the Columbia River Basin, in the United States and Canada. Review of the Columbia River Treaty governing shared management of the river has opened a public dialogue on river governance. Treaty review coincides with change in both the biophysical setting and the values and capacity of basin residents. Climate change is altering the timing of flow relied on by the management of developed river infrastructure and the annual runs of the basins’ salmonid species. River development increased economic development in the basin, but at the cost of ecosystem function. Assertion of legal rights by indigenous communities has brought an alternative world view to the review—one that seeks to maintain the benefits of river development while reconciling that development with ecosystem function. This article identifies the governance mechanisms needed to achieve reconciliation and describes their emergence in the Columbia River Basin through an analytical framework focused on local capacity building and network formation across jurisdictions, sectors, and scales of governance. Both countries fragment water management authority among jurisdictions and sectors, but bridging organizations have emerged to link interests and government at the watershed and basin scale. Emergence of new governance is facilitated by increases in local, regional, and indigenous governance capacity. This networked governance emerging at the biophysical scale while embedded in and linked to a hierarchy of formal international, national, state, and local government is characterized as the ecology of governance.

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Correspondence to Barbara Cosens.




Bonneville Power Administration


Columbia Basin Trust


Columbia River Basin


Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission


Northwest Power and Conservation Council


National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center


Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance


Upper Columbia United Tribes

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Cosens, B., McKinney, M., Paisley, R. et al. Reconciliation of development and ecosystems: the ecology of governance in the International Columbia River Basin. Reg Environ Change 18, 1679–1692 (2018).

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  • Water governance
  • New environmental governance
  • Networked governance
  • Panarchy
  • International rivers
  • Columbia River Basin