Author ORCID Identifier

Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis (Ph.D.)

Department or Program

Ecology, Evolution, Environment and Society

First Advisor

Francis Magilligan

Second Advisor

Richard Howarth

Third Advisor

Michael Cox


The U.S. has seen a shift towards decentralized watershed governance in recent decades that has increased the delegation of management responsibilities to local governments and community organizations. This shift has precipitated the emergence of multilevel watershed governance systems (e.g. national, state, regional, local management levels) that are hypothesized to be more adaptive and responsive to local needs. However, multilevel governance systems risk complicating and overburdening the role of local governments within watershed management, and little is known about how local governments address socio-ecological change within multilevel institutions. Working within several U.S. watershed geographies, this dissertation seeks to interrogate theories of change within watershed governance, and to understand how local-level governance systems respond to social-ecological change within multilevel governance arrangements. Concepts from watershed science, institutional economics, and complex systems dynamics are drawn upon to explore two central research questions: 1) how do watershed governance systems evolve? And 2) how do local governments respond to dynamic watershed conditions within multilevel watershed governance systems? These questions are examined through three studies of local watershed governance systems facing pressures from floods or droughts across the United States. Chapter one presents a comparative study of groundwater governance in Colorado’s four largest agricultural river basins to understand why self-regulation has emerged among groundwater users in only one basin. Chapters two and three further examine the social, institutional, and landscape variables that shape local watershed governance within the U.S. flood risk governance system, and probe concepts of managed retreat and governance transformation. Chapter two presents a comparative study of more than 40 towns in Vermont, USA that implemented floodplain property buyouts in response to the same flood disaster and characterizes the watershed parameters and local governance variables that were predictive of which towns completed buyouts. Chapter three expands upon the analytical framing of previous chapters to examine whether strategic managed retreat observed in Puget Sound, Washington, U.S. is the outcome of transformational changes within state and local flood governance systems. All three chapters depict how distinct watershed governance arrangements emerge through local responses to environmental disturbances and top-down policy interventions. Dissertation findings contribute new knowledge of how local governments navigate layered, slow-moving governance systems to address change within highly granular, dynamic watershed systems.

Original Citation

Loos, Jonathon R., Krister Andersson, Shauna Bulger, Kelsey C. Cody, Michael Cox, Alexander Gebben, and Steven M. Smith. 2022. “Individual to Collective Adaptation through Incremental Change in Colorado Groundwater Governance.” Frontiers in Environmental Science 10.