U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Complex Dynamics and Urban Water Transitions in Sustainable Water Management
Published: January 28, 2017
Posted: January 19, 2018

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.

Contacts (BER PM)
Bob Vallario

(PI Contact)
Dr. Budhendra Bhaduri

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.

Related Links
Reference link

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Multisector Dynamics (formerly Integrated Assessment)

Division: SC-23.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

Aug 24, 2019
New Approach for Studying How Microbes Influence Their Environment
A diverse group of scientists suggests a common framework and targeting of known microbial processes [more...]

Aug 08, 2019
Nutrient-Hungry Peatland Microbes Reduce Carbon Loss Under Warmer Conditions
Enzyme production in peatlands reduces carbon lost to respiration under future high temperatures. [more...]

Aug 05, 2019
Amazon Forest Response to CO2 Fertilization Dependent on Plant Phosphorus Acquisition
AmazonFACE Model Intercomparison. The Science Plant growth is dependent on the availabi [more...]

Jul 29, 2019
A Slippery Slope: Soil Carbon Destabilization
Carbon gain or loss depends on the balance between competing biological, chemical, and physical reac [more...]

Jul 15, 2019
Field Evaluation of Gas Analyzers for Measuring Ecosystem Fluxes
How gas analyzer type and correction method impact measured fluxes. The Science A side- [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)