© 2018 by the author(s). Democratization of water resources management through the involvement of stakeholders has been widely advocated over the past two decades. In light of mediocre results of such processes and severe criticism of the claimed benefits of stakeholder involvement, there is continued need for improving these processes and for supportive tools through which stakeholders can collaborate in decision making. In response to new European legal requirements, an innovative planning process was initiated to facilitate a productive dialog among stakeholders to develop a shared river basin management plan. This paper presents and discusses the results of action research on this participatory planning process in a semiarid river basin in Spain. We discuss: (1) to what extent participatory processes and tools address the needs of stakeholders and planners, (2) what enables or disables implementation in a complex socioeconomic reality, (3) to what extent the participatory approach leads to alignment with policy embodying a new water management paradigm, and (4) how tools can be flexible and their use adapted to changing contextual dynamics. Research results confirm the potential for increased participation assisted by web and GIS tools, however, such processes are highly sensitive to changing contexts as well as the mandate and continuity in support from management authorities. Fragmentation of responsibilities in the water arena and the weak interpretation of the coordinating role of the water administration undermine the democratic ruling sought for by public participation. Improved methodologies to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of participation are required, and tools need to be flexible in design and used in a facilitated participatory process, adaptable to changing contextual dynamics.
- Decision support
- Integrated river basin management
- Participatory spatial planning
- Water policy
- Web-GIS tools