The introduction of the Water Framework Directive in Europe represents a unique opportunity to promote more inclusive strategies for the long-term preservation of (socionatural) water systems. However, the analysis of the Portuguese experience, using the River Douro as a case study, reveals still considerable shortcomings in the assessment of problems and the formulation of solutions. Instead of promoting a meaningful dialogue between social groups and spatial areas, there is a systematic attempt to conform to legal requisites by taking a 'techno-bureaucratic' shortcut that largely reproduces the distortions of previous regulatory approaches. Decisions on water management are part of political disputes about regional development and state reform, such as in relation to the provision of water and electricity by public utilities. Nonetheless, these broader issues have been kept tacitly away from the WFD agenda, which has been concentrated on adjusting established procedures to the (formal) requirements of the new regulation.