Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Natural Resources

Major Professor

David M. Ostermeier

Committee Members

David L. Feldman, Donald G. Hodges, Bruce E. Tonn


In the past two decades, there has been a growing consensus regarding the inadequacies of the existing environmental policy regime and the need for reform to address complex, cross-jurisdictional sustainability challenges, such as nonpoint source pollution. Reform theory has focused on the need for more integrated, collaborative, adaptive, and results-oriented environmental management, while empirical studies have highlighted the wide implementation gap due to an array of institutional obstacles. Key principles and challenges of these four reform dimensions were synthesized in this study and used to assess implementation of the watershed approach by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and states since the early 1990s. This dissertation used a qualitative multiple case study design to examine the evolving watershed reform strategies of North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky, drawing on extensive document review and interviews with over 50 agency managers. Using an environmental federalism framework adapted from Scheberle (2004), the study explored the role of the national and regional EPA policy context, as well as state-level factors, in helping to shape the watershed approach strategies in the state cases. The research revealed that while EPA provided important initial support of state watershed management, its fragmented, output-driven program management continues to be a barrier to reform. EPA Region 4’s recent reform efforts demonstrate that regional offices can take critical steps to incorporate the watershed approach into internal agency management processes and external relations with states and stakeholders, but these changes often go against the grain of agency culture and norms. State agencies have made progress but face similar reform challenges, and their strategies are further shaped by important policy drivers, constraints, and resource limitations at the state level. More substantial investment is needed by EPA and states to: strengthen internal and external watershed coordination roles and forums; support collaborative stakeholder initiatives more fully where needed; and manage adaptively and accountably towards collectively defined watershed outcome targets.


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