The overall goal of our paper is to better understand water management reform in China's rural communities, especially focusing on the effect that improving incentives to water managers will have on the nation's water resources and the welfare of the rural population. To pursue this goal, the paper has three objectives. First, we track the evolution of water management reform and seek to identify the incentive mechanisms that encourage water managers to more efficiently use water. Second, we identify the impact on crop water use of the incentives provided to water managers during reform. Since we are also interested in the possible negative consequences of an incentive-led water management reform strategy, the paper also explores how changes in incentives also affect agricultural production, farmer income, and poverty. Based on a random sample of 51 villages, 189 farmers, and 378 plots in four large irrigation districts in Ningxia and Henan provinces, both provinces in China's Yellow River Basin, our results show that in our sample areas the two main forms of water management reform, Water User Associations and contracting, have begun to systematically replace traditional forms of collective management. Our analysis demonstrates, however, that it is not the nominal implementation of the reform that matters, but rather it is the creation of new management institutions that offer water managers monetary incentives that lead to water savings. Importantly, given China's concerns about national food production and poverty alleviation, the reductions in water, at least in our sample sites, do not lead to reductions in either production or income, and do not increase the incidence of poverty.