Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Doug Kenney

Second Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Third Advisor

Deserai Crow

Fourth Advisor

Tanya Heikkila

Fifth Advisor

Brad Udall


Water resources around the world face significant challenges in the 21st century. Ecological degradation, expanding populations and shifting demands, climate change, drought, and numerous other factors increasingly limit the ability of water managers to effectively govern these resources without adversely impacting users and ecosystems in disproportionate ways. Accordingly, water governance principles such as sustainability have emerged as possible guiding mechanisms for addressing these challenges and responding to diverse stakeholder needs. Equity is another principle that is often discussed as a component of sustainability, but it is also an important consideration in its own right. Therefore, this dissertation explores the literature on sustainable and equitable water policy, in conjunction with the adaptive capacity literature, using the Colorado River Basin as a case study. Specifically, it asks how criteria for sustainable and equitable water policy might improve decision-making processes in an era of increasing uncertainty regarding future supplies and demands.

Using a mixed-method approach, this project examines policies and decision-making processes in the Colorado River Basin. An initial literature review regarding sustainability and equity criteria in river-basin decision-making reveals that despite the development of diverse criteria, it remains difficult to implement and utilize these criteria in practice. Then, a systematic analysis of three contemporary Colorado River Basin policies demonstrates how existing institutions have evolved in response to changing biophysical conditions. Collaborative efforts have improved and specific additional considerations, such as increasing flexibility and accepting uncertainty, are increasingly included in the decision-making process. Additional findings indicate that while stakeholder participation, decision-making transparency, and fairness are important considerations for improving adaptive capacity, maximizing the efficacy of these concepts requires a nuanced and in-depth understanding of their inter-related operation. These findings contribute to the understanding of not only why there must be limits to stakeholder participation and decision-making transparency, but perhaps more importantly, they demonstrate how to effectively consider these limits and institutionalize a fairer and more equitable process. Finally, findings indicate that mechanisms such as utilizing incrementalism, giving flexibility to specific individuals, and developing empathetic and proactive processes may support improved adaptive capacity and facilitate a more sustainable and equitable approach to river-basin management.