In this article we summarize histories of nonlinear, complex interactions among societal, legal, and ecosystem dynamics in six North American water basins, as they respond to changing climate. These case studies were chosen to explore the conditions for emergence of adaptive governance in heavily regulated and developed social-ecological systems nested within a hierarchical governmental system. We summarize resilience assessments conducted in each system to provide a synthesis and reference by the other articles in this special feature. We also present a general framework used to evaluate the interactions between society and ecosystem regimes and the governance regimes chosen to mediate those interactions. The case studies show different ways that adaptive governance may be triggered, facilitated, or constrained by ecological and/or legal processes. The resilience assessments indicate that complex interactions among the governance and ecosystem components of these systems can produce different trajectories, which include patterns of (a) development and stabilization, (b) cycles of crisis and recovery, which includes lurches in adaptation and learning, and (3) periods of innovation, novelty, and transformation. Exploration of cross scale (Panarchy) interactions among levels and sectors of government and society illustrate that they may constrain development trajectories, but may also provide stability during crisis or innovation at smaller scales; create crises, but may also facilitate recovery; and constrain system transformation, but may also provide windows of opportunity in which transformation, and the resources to accomplish it, may occur. The framework is the starting point for our exploration of how law might play a role in enhancing the capacity of social-ecological systems to adapt to climate change.