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This article attempts to shed new light on prevailing puzzles of spatial scales in multi-level, participatory governance as regards the democratic legitimacy and environmental effectiveness of governance systems. We focus on the governance re-scaling by the European Water Framework Directive, which introduced new governance scales (mandated river basin management) and demands consultation of citizens and encourages ‘active involvement’ of stakeholders. This allows to examine whether and how re-scaling through deliberate governance interventions impacts on democratic legitimacy and effective environmental policy delivery. To guide the enquiry, this article organizes existing—partly contradictory—claims on the relation of scale, democratic legitimacy, and environmental effectiveness into three clusters of mechanisms, integrating insights from multi-level governance, social-ecological systems, and public participation. We empirically examine Water Framework Directive implementation in a comparative case study of multi-level systems in the light of the suggested mechanisms. We compare two planning areas in Germany: North Rhine Westphalia and Lower Saxony. Findings suggest that the Water Framework Directive did have some impact on institutionalizing hydrological scales and participation. Local participation appears generally both more effective and legitimate than on higher levels, pointing to the need for yet more tailored multi-level governance approaches, depending on whether environmental knowledge or advocacy is sought. We find mixed results regarding the potential of participation to bridge spatial ‘misfits’ between ecological and administrative scales of governance, depending on the historical institutionalization of governance on ecological scales. Polycentricity, finally, appeared somewhat favorable in effectiveness terms with some distinct differences regarding polycentricity in planning vs. polycentricity in implementation.