Who influences water policy? The role of discourse coalitions in the Lake Erie basin

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Bereket Negasi Isaac.Bereket Negasi Isaac School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability


rob de loeRob de Loë School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability



Watershed-based approaches to address water issues often involve a diverse set of actors working collaboratively to develop policy. The identities of those actors are often tied to social interactions, networks, and narratives that bind them into “discourse coalitions”, thus helping them give meaning to their actions. In this study, we question how discourse coalitions influence water quality policy development in the Western Lake Erie Basin, where the province of Ontario and the state of Ohio have embarked on a 40 per cent phosphorus run-off reduction target to address eutrophication problems in the lake.

 Thames and Maumee Watersheds

Figure 1:  Case study areas: Thames and Maumee watersheds


In this study, we used the concept of discourse to understand the collaborative process undertaken to develop domestic action plans (DAPs) to guide efforts by stakeholders to reduce nutrient inputs into Lake Erie. Our analysis was informed by two case studies: the Thames River watershed (Ontario, Canada), and the Maumee watershed (Ohio, U.S.A.) (Figure 1) where we used data from 55 semi-structured interviews with various actors (e.g., government, ENGOs, farming communities, municipalities), news media, direct observation (e.g., participation in meetings and workshops), websites and social media posts, and public comments made by stakeholders during the DAP consultation process.


The study found that in both cases there were distinct groups of actors who shared and promoted a particular narrative or storyline. These storylines reflected differences in how actors characterized the nature of Lake Erie’s eutrophication problem, possible solutions, and who was responsible.

The “external factors” storyline characterized Lake Erie’s water quality problem as having causes and drivers, such as climate change, that primarily lie outside of the decisions of actors and the current governance system. The storyline shifts focus away from agricultural nutrient run-off as the main cause of the problem, and towards the broader issue of the lake’s ecological health. Since eutrophication is complex, poorly understood, and involves interaction among multiple drivers, no clear action would therefore be able to directly address it. Given that exact cause and effect relationships are poorly understood, potential solutions include incremental, voluntary and incentive-based “business-as-usual” actions. The study showed that the final DAP policy evolved in several ways to reflect the “external factors” storyline, which was promoted by Ontario’s farming community and associated agribusiness.

The “weak governance” storyline suggested that Lake Erie’s water quality problems resulted from weak policies and uncoordinated efforts. In particular, proponents argued that the government should further regulate agricultural run-off, and improve enforcement of existing laws. The study revealed only limited instances where the “weak governance” storyline influenced the final DAPs. Canadian environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) promoted the “weak governance” narrative in collaboration with their American counterparts, made possible by the shared discourse across the border.

The “farmers are shirking responsibility” storyline argued that the Ohio farming community was not adequately addressing Lake Erie’s water quality problems despite significant scientific evidence that agriculture was the single major source of nutrients. They criticized the Ohio Department of Agriculture for an overreliance on voluntary actions and not mandating farmers to do more, and suggested that the state adopt stricter nutrient management controls and farmers implement improved best management practices. The study noted that while Ohio’s final DAP document did not include any new regulatory actions, it did initiate an investigation to determine if Lake Erie’s waters were “impaired” which could ultimately advance a regulatory approach. The “farmers are shirking responsibility” storyline was promoted by United States ENGOs, municipalities and recreational actors.

The “random acts of restoration” storyline suggested that the problem with Lake Erie was not a lack of action, but rather that efforts have been fragmented, random and inefficient. They argued that despite expenditures of more than US$3 billion between 2010 and 2016, eutrophication remained a problem because programmes and projects were not co-ordinated, scientific advice to farmers was not consistent or was conflicting, and agencies operated with a “silo mentality”. Accordingly, the storyline promoted increased co-ordination, efficiency and transparency of efforts and the creation of a basin-wide organizing framework using the United States Clean Water Act’s “impaired” watershed provision. The study found evidence that this storyline was accommodated in the final DAP policy document and that, importantly, the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) supportive language helped legitimize this approach. The “random acts of restoration” storyline was promoted by the IJC, Ohio Lake Erie Commission, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and various agricultural groups.


The study demonstrated the significant influence of discourse on the policy making process and provided insights into how storylines can transform an environmental issue into a “problem” with identifiable cause and effect relationships. It demonstrated how storylines supply the policy process with a seemingly coherent account of what is at stake and what needs to be done by whom. The study also provided an important understanding of how discourse coalitions form. We observed that even though ideas, narratives and metaphors play an important role in holding discourse coalitions together, the role of interests also needs to be given due consideration.

Beyond illustrating how storylines shaped the nature and form of the Lake Erie DAPs, the study identified other important issues for the water governance policy process. More specifically, implications associated with unequal capacities among different actor coalitions and the potential for policy influence from other jurisdictions via discourse coalitions were identified as important issues when considering whose voice has sufficient legitimacy to be considered in the policy process.

Isaac, B.N. & de Loë, R. (2020). Eutrophication and water quality policy discourse in the Lake Erie Basin. Water Alternatives, 13(3): 800-821.

For more information about WaterResearch, contact Mary Anne Hardy.