Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling
26 June 2019

Complex Dynamics and Urban Water Transitions in Sustainable Water Management


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 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.

Budhendra Bhaduri
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
Treuer, G, E Koebele, A Deslatte, K Ernst, M Garcia, and K Manago.  2017.  "A narrative method for analyzing transitions in urban water management: The case of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department."  Water Resources Research 53(1): 891-908.