Complex Dynamics and Urban Water Transitions in Sustainable Water Management

The Science

Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed and tested a replicable, integrated quantitative and qualitative methodology to analyze transitions by utilities towards sustainability in urban water management.  More specifically, standardized quantitative measures of factors that influence transitions are combined with contextual qualitative information about a city’s unique decision-making context to produce structured, data-driven narratives. These data-driven narratives are then evaluated through the lens of multiple exposure theory including such specific factors as:
– Biophysical and regulatory exposure due to water supply stress
– Political exposure by measuring media attention to water issues
– Institutional structure using the Institutional Grammar tool
– Financial exposure using the percent change in net position based on utility-reported annual measure of financial health

Researchers from ORNL compared and contrasted urban transitions to understand what elements of individual or collective factors may hinder or enable transitions towards sustainability.

The Impact

The research identifies the broader context and causal mechanisms behind obstacles to transitioning to sustainable urban water management.


This paper presents a replicable methodology for analyzing how urban water utilities transition toward sustainability within a complex Earth system environment subject to multiple stressors.   Resulting data-narratives document the broader context, the utility’s pretransition history, key events during an accelerated period of change, and the consequences of transition. Gaining a better understanding of how these transitions occur is crucial for continuing to understand how water management systems may evolve and the many potential pathways of evolution.  Eventually, these narratives should be compared across cases to develop empirically-testable hypotheses about the drivers of and barriers to utility-level urban water management transition.

Principal Investigator(s)

Budhendra Bhaduri
Oak Ridge National Laboratory


This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Integrated Assessment Program. ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy under contract DE-AC05- 00OR22725. This work is also supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation (DBI-1052875), the South Florida Water, Sustainability, and Climate Project is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Water, Sustainability, and Climate (WSC) Program (EAR-1204762 and EAR-12040235) with joint support from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA Award 2012- 67003-19862), the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DG1E-0951782), Water Diplomacy Traineeship (IGERT-0966093), STEM Leaders Fellowship (EEC-1444926), and Engineering Research Center for Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (EEC-1028968).


Treuer, G., Koebele, E., Deslatte, A., Ernst, K., Garcia, M., and Manago, K. 2016. “A narrative method for analyzing transitions in urban water management: The case of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department,” Water Resour. Res. 52:1-20. doi: 10.1002/2016WR019658.