Participation in environmental decision-making is increasingly regarded as a ‘human right’. Given the fundamental importance of water to human existence, the apparent urgency of burgeoning environmental ‘crises’, and growing public distrust of policy decisions based on institutional science (Irwin 1995), it is unsurprising that the debate over how best to democratise water management has become a significant one.

Contemporary spaces of water governance are characterised by the combination of multiple entities and processes in a complex system of power relations which together produce meaning and action (Murdoch 2006). Within these spaces, despite the putative virtue of the prevailing liberal model of participatory ‘deliberative’ democracy, there are tensions between its scientific, ethical, democratic and economic underpinnings. Such contradictions and complexities are of importance because they have the capacity to prevent a satisfactory political resolution to water problems using a prescribed methodology.

This has led to the emergence of an array of alternative perspectives on how to properly politicise the management of the environment: from, at one side of the spectrum, the post-political conviction in the fundamentally contradictory nature of liberal democracy (Swyngedouw 2011); to, at the other, the liberal elimination of antagonism and conflict in favour of consensus-building in formal arrangements (Mouffe 2005).

By investigating how hydro-social democratic spaces in Arizona – a region of acute water stress combined with rapid development – are opened up or closed down to contestation between multiple relationships, this work will argue how a clearer, truer prescription for democratic decision-making might materialise through acceptance of the ambivalent, partial character of human relations.