Agricultural drainage is a complicated and often conflict-ridden natural resource management issue, impacting contested ecosystem services related to the retention of wetlands as well as the productivity of farmland. This research identifies opportunities to transform the conflict over agricultural drainage in Saskatchewan, Canada, towards collaboration. We report on ethnographic research informed by a conservation conflict-transformation framework to evaluate the nature of the conflict and whether drivers of the conflict operate principally at the level of disputes over discrete ecosystem services or if they reach deeper into local social circumstances and build on larger unresolved conflict(s) among groups in the region. In addition to the conflict-transformation framework, we apply the Social–Ecological Systems Framework to elicit details regarding the substantive, relational, and material dimensions of this conflict. Our research suggests that processes for governing natural resources, such as those in place for governing drainage in Saskatchewan, need to have mechanisms to facilitate relationship building and shared understandings, need to be adaptable to people’s changing needs and concerns, and should focus on inclusivity and empowerment of actors to address conflict.
Complex interactions between water, society, the economy, and the environment necessitate attention to how water issues are framed, and the limitations of a water-centric framework for analyzing or solving problems. We explore this complexity through an example of an existing complex, or wicked, policy problem - the case of agricultural wetland drainage in the Canadian Prairies. Agricultural wetland drainage expands the amount of productive agricultural land, increasing agricultural efficiency and productivity. Drainage is also one of the primary drivers of the loss of Canada’s wetlands and is a hotly contentious issue between actors with divergent views and values in the Canadian Prairies. Using the nuances of drainage as an exemplar, we discuss how fragmented framings of water foster perspectives and solutions that fail to consider the full range of aspects and interactions, and contribute to the enduring conflicts that accompany drainage debates in many regions. First, we discuss agricultural wetland drainage as practiced in the province of Saskatchewan, where significant regulatory and governance changes are in progress. Next, we discuss the challenges of policy and governance fragmentation, both specific to water and to the surrounding system. Finally, we note potential alternative framings that, while specific to prairie water governance, provide guidance for how other complex social-ecological challenges might be approached.