The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is in the process of restructuring the European water policy towards river basin management (RBM). The transposition of the WFD requires institutional change in order to comply with its substantive and procedural requirements. This paper investigates changes in water management collaboration in a federally organised Member State with regard to the configuration of involved actors and the spatial scale at which issues are considered. Based on qualitative methods, the paper presents a case study of the German Odra river basin and the governance of nutrient pollution whose origins are located all along the river and which specifically impacts coastal zones. We looked at actors most relevant to this management problem, that is, public administrations operating within different administrative boundaries, the agricultural sector and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In order to capture institutional change, a conceptual framework was constructed to evaluate changes in collaboration on three interrelated levels: formal institutional change, informal institutional change and changes in actors’ mental models. We explain complex institutional change as a product of multiple dynamics, which includes the content of shared mental models and a benefit–cost calculation that takes transaction costs into consideration.

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