The world's freshwater ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity; between 1970 and 2000, the abundance of freshwater species declined by 50%, threatening species survival and provision of ecosystem services. Alteration of hydrological flow regimes, through dams, water abstractions and diversions, is one of the main causes of freshwater ecosystem degradation. In recognition of these threats, efforts are increasingly focused on restoring 'environmental flows', defined in the Brisbane Declaration as the 'quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems'. Implementing environmental flows is a complex process. Relationships between hydrological alteration and ecological response need to be identified to determine the flow regime that will best meet ecosystem restoration goals. There are many methods to do this, but there is usually considerable uncertainty in the results. Dam operations then need to be changed and/or water withdrawals restricted to provide the required flow regime.
Despite many jurisdictions investing in developing policies to secure environmental flows, both at national scale and at watershed scale, their implementation is inadequate. Although there are many reasons for this, case studies suggest that disputes between stakeholders over the environmental flow policy are one of the main hindrances to implementation, particularly as implementation usually requires a trade-off with human needs for water, energy or flood protection.
Environmental conflicts are characterised by differing accounts of the issue at hand and of the dispute itself. Therefore, resolving a dispute requires understanding how stakeholders perceive, or frame, the issue. There is much evidence that different frames of a problem between stakeholders can prolong disputes over management of the environment and natural resources.
This study aimed to uncover how stakeholders perceive, or frame, an environmental flow for Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River, Canada, to identify which stakeholders supported the policy and which opposed it, and the factors driving the position taken. The research contributes to theory on how stakeholders frame environmental disputes, specifically in terms of how conflict between social needs and ecosystem needs (as opposed to conflict between the needs of different social groups) is framed. It also develops theory on barriers to environmental flow implementation, an issue which has been little explored to date. From a policy point of view, understanding stakeholders' perceptions is vital for developing effective strategies to promote the policy and mediate disputes, in order that the environmental flow can be implemented.
Frame analysis, a method that has been used to understand the dynamics of disputes about environmental management, was used to identify the frames that stakeholders use to make sense of the issue. Firstly, a typology of frames that might be found was developed from the literature on frames of environmental disputes, which included how stakeholders' describe the essence of the issue, how the policy might affect their identity, how they view other stakeholders involved in the dispute, and how they prefer to resolve the issue. Data sources included documents related to the policy, including management plans, news articles, and blog posts, as well as semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in the watershed. Interviewees were identified using a systematic stakeholder analysis methodology and were selected according to the principles of non-proportional quota sampling. Documents and interview transcripts were analysed using qualitative content analysis. They were coded according to the predefined typology, which was modified to include new codes as necessary, in a provisional coding methodology. Key themes were then developed from the coded data.
Stakeholders in the watershed were found to describe the dispute very differently, depending on whether they supported or opposed the environmental flow, as well as their location within the watershed (i.e. upstream or downstream). Those that supported the policy described it as necessary for environmental protection, while those that opposed it described it as an unnecessary intervention, a waste of money, or as a threat to their property. Economic issues underlined both positions; supporters of the policy focused on loss of tourism revenue due to environmental degradation and loss of sport fish in the absence of the policy, while opposers focused on economic losses from the increased flood risk if the policy were implemented.
In common with other studies of environmental disputes, a key issue was that the policy had implications for the self-identity of some stakeholders. Of note was the emphasis that stakeholders at risk of flooding put on the length of time they had lived there and their sense of community belonging. A sense that policy makers were attempting to take what was theirs appeared to perpetuate a feeling of injustice amongst those at risk of flooding. This implies that for policy implementation to be successful, measures to reduce flood risk, such as flood insurance, funding for flood defences and other measures, would not be solely successful. Measures to alleviate the sense of injustice, through true engagement in policy development and improvements to the local environment of those at risk, may be needed.
The study confirmed that disputes between stakeholders are a key barrier to implementation of environmental flows. The perceived threat to belongings and self-identity of opponents of the policy was a key driver of the dispute, as is the case for other environmental disputes. Implementation of environmental flow policies is likely to require genuine stakeholder engagement, appropriate mediation and secondary measures to address perceptions of injustice.