The core aspiration of the WFD is that through a focus on hydrological boundaries the development of integrated river basin management (IRBM) will overcome the previously fragmented directives relevant to water and develop a more holistic approach to sustainable water management. In this paper we focus on the significant role that intermediary organizations, often neglected in conventional analysis, play in water governance processes. We use three case study examples of intermediaries working in the North-West of England to illustrate the importance of understanding their work in translating sustainable water management from regional strategy to local practice. Critically, the work of intermediaries across different scales of practice involves a complex array of negotiation, (re)representation and translation of what ‘sustainable water management’ becomes in relation to different contexts. Their strength comes in their ability to adapt their relationship to water into different sets of interests and contexts without necessarily integrating these interests. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.