Ethics and values are important dimensions of water governance. We show how a "values approach" contributes to an understanding of global water governance, and how it complements other perspectives on governance, namely management, institutional capacity, and social-ecological systems. We connect these other approaches to their own value systems and the ethical attitudes they engender. We then offer a way to explicitly incorporate, and where necessary adjudicate, competing value systems through a values-based approach to governance. A case of the Santa Fe River in New Mexico, USA illustrates how value systems are reflected in water policies and how these values affect governance priorities, such as in environmental flows. The values-based approach clarifies tacit values and creates space to align local values with those needed for effective water governance at the global level.