Governing agricultural nonpoint source water pollution is a complex task, challenged by the heterogeneity of agro-ecological systems, the politicized nature of agri-environmental regulations, and a reliance on the participation and collective action of individual farmers. These often contentious, multi-stakeholder policy settings serve as an ideal case in which boundary spanning actors are thought to promote cooperation across diverging interest groups, policy learning, and collaborative outcomes. This research integrates boundary spanning and discourse theories to investigate the use of policy narratives in a collaborative governance approach to manage agricultural nonpoint source water pollution in California. California’s Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program takes a unique collaborative governance approach by creating water quality coalitions that operate as boundary organizations, structurally situated between the centralized state water agency and farmers, and tasked with building cooperation among farmers and motivating the implementation of improved nutrient management strategies. We present participant observation and interview data with coalition representatives, farmers and state regulators to characterize the narrative strategies and approaches the coalitions employ under different settings to work toward the desired policy outcomes. Our findings suggest that this coalition-based decentralized policy structure amplifies contextual and ideological differences in actors across geographies, leading to varying levels of success in reaching policy goals and protecting water quality. We discuss tradeoffs of collaborative policy structures that may allow for more locally-adaptable policy implementation, but also leave policy outcomes vulnerable to regional differences and varying approaches to managing and enforcing environmental regulations.
- Jessica Rudnick, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California Davis