Shifting drivers and static baselines in environmental governance: challenges for improving and proving water quality outcomes

Sean Gillon, Eric G. Booth, Adena R. Rissman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Understanding the conditions that enable or constrain success in environmental governance is crucial for developing effective interventions and adapting approaches. Efforts to achieve and assess success in environmental quality improvement are often impeded by changes in conditions that drive outcomes but lie outside the scope of intervention and monitoring. We document how long-term changes in land use, agriculture, and climate act as non-stationary, shifting drivers of change that combine to render water quality management interventions less effective and increasingly difficult to assess. Focusing on the Yahara River watershed of south-central Wisconsin, USA, we ask how baselines influence program modeling, monitoring, and evaluation, as well as adaptation in governance approach. Through historical trend, GIS, and policy and qualitative data analyses, we find that changes in long-term land use and precipitation pattern dynamics exert tremendous pressure on water quality outcomes but are not captured in snapshot baseline assessments used in management planning or evaluation. Specifically, agricultural sector change related to the intensification of milk and manure production is increasingly challenging to address through best management practices, and flashier precipitation associated with climate change makes it difficult to achieve goals and establish a causal connection between management interventions and outcomes. Analysis of shifting drivers demonstrates challenges facing environmental governance in the context of climatic and social–ecological change. We suggest that goal setting, program design, and evaluation incorporate new modes of analysis that address slowly changing and external determinants of success.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)759-775
Number of pages17
JournalRegional Environmental Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Agricultural intensification
  • Climate change
  • Environmental governance
  • Land use change
  • Shifting drivers
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change


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