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Baehler, K. J., and J. C. Biddle. 2018. Governance for adaptive capacity and resilience in the U.S. water sector. Ecology and Society 23(4):24.

Governance for adaptive capacity and resilience in the U.S. water sector

1American University, 2University of North Carolina Wilmington


Water utility managers play potentially important roles in current and future transitions toward more adaptive and sustainable approaches to water management. We report the results of qualitative interviews and focus groups designed to explore the perspectives of 22 water utility managers in the United States regarding pressures, challenges, and opportunities facing their organizations and communities. Overall, the study participants characterized their jobs as requiring a delicate balance between innovation and reliability, with no room for error in delivering abundant, clean water, but opportunities for creative problem-solving and forward planning. They demonstrated capacity for embracing changes that benefit the longer term future while imposing short-term costs on their own organizations. Coding of transcripts generated 17 major themes (11 problem categories and six solution categories), which overlap meaningfully with results of previous research on resilience, adaptability, and transformability of social-ecological systems. Overlapping themes include social learning and development of social capital through various forms of collaboration, communication, and citizen and stakeholder engagement, as well as capacity for innovation and sufficient authority to make decisions based on system needs without undue political interference or burdensome adherence to rigid rule structures.
Key words: adaptation; adaptive capacity; public water system; resilience; social-ecological system; transformation; water governance regime; water utility


Significant changes are needed in many social-ecological-technological regimes to prevent collapses triggered by fast or slow variables, including climate change-related shocks, population growth, harmful extraction practices, poor land use choices, and related stressors (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2010, Olsson et al. 2014). Nonetheless, most of the actual changes underway represent little more than demonstration projects and incremental progress (Brown 2008).

The mismatch between realities and aspirations may be explained by the stickiness of management processes and institutions (Garmestani and Benson 2013), many of which become institutionalized for good reasons (Marlow et al. 2013) but then persist long past their usefulness (Raven et al. 2010), and ultimately harden into rigidity traps (Holling and Gunderson 2002, Marschke and Berkes 2006, Young 2010). Researchers are keen to identify factors that can overcome such traps and increase the probability that a vulnerable social-ecological system (SES) will undergo appropriate types of change—either by adapting within a regime or transforming to a new regime as needed for the sake of human and ecosystem survival and flourishing (Walker et al. 2004, Folke et al. 2010, Olsson et al. 2014).

Although panaceas are illusory (Ostrom 2007), research suggests that some governance structures and practices support SES adaptability and transformability better than others (Yohe and Tol 2002, Dietz et al. 2003, Brooks et al. 2005, Gallopin 2006, Engle 2011, Pahl-Wostl 2017). They do so by helping key actors navigate transitions adeptly, which includes preparing for, recognizing, and using windows of opportunity for change (Olsson et al. 2006, Young 2010). Navigational abilities apply at the micro level of socio-technological organization where actors can facilitate experimentation within strategic niches and shadow networks (Raven et al. 2010, Bos and Brown 2012). They also apply at the meso level where actors are needed to disseminate experimental findings beyond the niche, modify everyday practices based on lessons learned, coordinate across scales, and manage larger tensions within and between constantly shifting regimes (de Graaf and van der Brugge 2010, Jørgensen 2012).

Human agency clearly matters throughout transition processes (de Graaf and van der Brugge 2010, Berkes and Ross 2013, Olsson et al. 2014). As international consensus grows in favor of more adaptive and integrative water governance regimes, we might expect actors within those regimes to feel increased pressure to become entrepreneurs, leaders, and change agents who embrace deep change. But, do they?

We approach those questions from the perspective of actors who manage water and wastewater utilities—organizational control points that profoundly influence how people use water in their daily lives (Wiek and Larson 2012). Previous scholarship has shed some light on this group of actors, especially through surveys and interviews conducted by transition management researchers in Australia and the Netherlands (Brown 2008, de Graaf and van der Brugge 2010, Marlow et al. 2010, Bos and Brown 2012, Ries et al. 2016). The findings from those studies provide valuable information about water professionals’ views on various researcher-defined topics, including the relationship between sustainability planning and asset management (Marlow et al. 2010), and alignment with the sustainable urban water management paradigm (Brown 2008).

Missing from the growing body of scholarship is a summary of water professionals’ unprompted priorities, particularly the views of water utility managers regarding pressures, challenges, and opportunities facing their organizations and communities. The resulting gap in knowledge merits attention because of the potentially significant role of these individuals in shaping the water paradigm of the future. Positioned at the intersection of technology, policy implementation, and public service delivery, water utility managers can function as leaders, followers, facilitators, or obstructors of transitions, with serious implications for SES outcomes (Brown 2005, Loorbach 2010, Marlow et al. 2013).

If water managers are to be involved productively at all stages of the water governance transition process—from structuring problems to envisioning new pathways, mobilizing supporters, making and executing plans, monitoring progress, evaluating results, and capturing learning (Loorbach 2010, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2010)—then their approaches to such tasks must be well understood. We contribute to deeper understanding of transitional potential by compiling water managers’ wide-ranging perspectives on water sector problems and solutions, and examining them in the context of related research findings.


Our logic of inquiry proceeds both “from the inside,” by exploring the perspectives of personnel in frontline organizations, and “from the outside,” by engaging with the research community’s central findings on SES governance transitions (Evered and Louis 1981:385).

Recruitment and participants

Recruitment of the sample was purposive. All 22 participants were senior managers or directors of water utility organizations and were employed by different organizations in different cities. Private or investor-owned utilities were excluded due to differences in key governance factors and because most of the drinking water in the United States flows through public systems. Small, rural systems also were excluded due to significant differences in the types of challenges facing those systems.

A pool of 63 potential interviewees was identified through an internet search for water utilities in coastal cities of the United States (to reduce one source of sample variation) that posted managers’ contact information online. Initial contact occurred via email invitations that described our research process and included the interview guide. Follow-up phone calls were made to those who did not reply to the emails and to schedule phone interviews with those who indicated a willingness to participate. Focus group invitees were selected from a list of all registrants (not limited to coastal areas) for the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) annual convention whose contact information was available online (total of 161 invitees).

Distribution of the final sample by size and location of utility is shown in Table 1. Both interviewees and focus group attendees are included.

Data collection and analysis

The interview guide used in both interviews and focus groups (Appendix 1) was designed to elicit the subjects’ own priorities and concerns, independent of researchers’ priorities. To prevent the conversations from being colored by subjects’ reactions to particular words that may have acquired political connotations in some settings (such as resilience and sustainability), the interview guide used a small number of nontechnical, plain-language concepts (Ospina et al. 2018):

Interviews and focus groups began with an open-ended request: “Tell me about your agency and its priorities,” and went on to ask about the concepts just listed. If a participant did not mention the term “resilience,” the protocol prompted for it near the end of each conversation. The canvas was open for participants to steer the discussion in directions that reflected their interests and concerns.

We conducted 40-minute (average) phone interviews with 14 individuals. Two focus groups (total eight participants) of approximately 75 minutes duration each were conducted in-person at the AWWA conference location by two moderators. All discussions were audio recorded with participants’ permission. A notetaker attended the focus groups and recorded the order of speakers and notable behaviors. Interviewers and a research assistant transcribed all 12 hours of recordings using NVivo. Participants verified the accuracy of transcribed interviews and provided comments on preliminary results.

The analysis proceeded in four stages. In the first, which corresponds with Yin’s (2016) “disassembling” phase of qualitative research, each author undertook an independent coding exercise covering all 16 transcripts—14 interviews and two focus groups. This involved identifying each distinct idea being expressed by a participant, marking the phrases or sentences associated with that idea, and then labeling each idea with a natural-language tag such as “aging infrastructure concern” or “complaint about regulations.” This exercise, known as level one open coding (Corbin and Strauss 2015), generated 80 separate tags, or codes, nearly all of which were applied to more than one transcript. Each transcript contained at least one dozen level one codes. In the second stage, which corresponds with Yin’s (2016) “reassembling” phase, the level one codes were consolidated into successively smaller numbers of broader constructs, eventually settling on 16 level two (or axial) codes meant to capture the central ideas contained in the transcript data (Fig. 1). For example, level one open codes such as “low attendance at public meetings” and “outreach through bill inserts” would be consolidated into “communication and engagement.” Lengthy discussion between the authors led to mutual agreement on the axial codes.

The third phase of analysis consisted of a holistic rereading of each raw, uncoded transcript to note the overall thrust of the managers’ narratives and draw more general impressions. This method roughly corresponds with an abductive approach to qualitative research (Ong 2012). In the fourth phase, which was undertaken in response to reviewers’ comments, the authors copied and pasted all coded pieces of transcript data into a spreadsheet organized by axial code themes as a recheck of coding logic. In addition, numerical counts of participants who raised each topic were noted in order to gauge the relative level of representativeness of the various consolidated (axial) codes or themes.

Consolidating codes required interpretation of the data. In order to strengthen the validity of the final code structure, the two researchers actively challenged each other’s interpretations during the iterative coding and recoding process, and study participants were invited to comment on preliminary findings. Coding was done using NVivo software.

Although saturation (i.e., the point at which no new level one concepts are raised by participants) was reached after eight to 10 interviews, we continued to conduct interviews because we had willing subjects. The focus groups raised two new level one concepts not covered in the interviews—aging workforce and supply-chain challenges during disasters.


While the interviews and focus groups generated a wide range of specific examples and considerable variability in emphasis, similar broad themes were raised over and over again, as depicted by the 10 problem categories (ovals) and six solution categories (boxes) of Fig. 1. Some comments from study participants also provided information about which solutions are meant to address which problems, as shown by the arrows in Fig. 1. This section reports results from the data analysis.

Note: Arrows point from problems identified by participants to the solutions suggested for those problems. The dotted arrow pointing from innovation to workforce shortages represents the fact that adoption of more sophisticated technological innovations increases pressure to hire more technical workers in the water sector, which contributes to the problem of worker shortages.

Water sector challenges

When asked open-ended questions about their organizations’ goals, participants nearly always used the words reliability or dependability (10 interviewees and both focus groups), or referred to related concepts of service performance (four interviewees). Threats to that goal of reliability ranked high on participants’ lists of challenges. Sea level rise and other effects of climate change (storms, flooding, drought) were identified as major, long-standing priorities in two of three interviews on the Pacific coast and four of nine on the Atlantic coast, and as a moderate priority for one additional east coast interviewee. Neither of the Great Lakes interviewees expressed concerns about climate change, and most focus group members did not use the term.

Apart from climate change, nearly all participants either raised the topic of emergencies and disasters or reinforced the theme through supportive comments or body language in the focus groups. (The exceptions were the two Great Lakes interviewees.) Supply chain disruption during earthquakes or storms was a major topic in the first focus group. Earthquakes and tsunamis were specified as concerns on the west coast, saltwater intrusion into aquifers in the Southeast, and winter storms in New England. Loss of power from large weather events was a common concern across the country, except for three interviewees who had high confidence in their back-up generators (assuming access to diesel fuel).

The challenge of building public support for system maintenance and upgrades was clearly on managers’ minds. With a few exceptions, the prevailing view was that customers “don’t want to pay, and don’t understand, the real cost of water” (interviewee, Southeast), largely because “[i]t’s out of sight, out of mind…they take it for granted” (interviewee, Great Lakes). The topic also arose in both focus groups, with the word “complacency” used in one to describe typical public attitudes.

Public undervaluation of water was closely tied to another high-priority concern for 10 interviewees and all members of both focus groups: the increasingly urgent need to replace pipes and plants, many of which were built and installed 50 to 100 or more years ago. The challenge of aging infrastructure came up early in both focus groups and many interviews. Participants often expressed frustration with local elected officials who avoid politically unpopular moves to fund necessary replacements. And on a related point, six interviewees and multiple participants in both focus groups expressed frustration with local politics generally (e.g., “rivalries,” “grudges”), and especially the pressure to compete for funding and attention from elected officials.

A related problem of perception arose in both focus groups and five interviews: that is the stereotype of utilities as excessively risk averse. All participants who mentioned the issue noted that utilities cannot engage in experimentation as freely as other organizations because of potential consequences for public health, the environment, and fire suppression. They wanted the public to see risk aversion in water utilities as a virtue rather than a bureaucratic infirmity.

Five interviewees and several members of the second focus group noted multiple special challenges facing smaller water systems—including lack of redundancy, difficulties raising capital, and small-town rivalries that stifle cooperation. Small systems struggle particularly hard to meet regulatory requirements, according to one interviewee.

Animated discussions arose in both focus groups over the obstacles to hiring younger workers with technical skills, and the implications for future workforce shortages. By contrast, only four interviewees raised similar concerns.

The question of where to find additional water sources to accommodate future economic and population growth was a major discussion topic in the first focus group (less so in the second) and for six interviewees spread between both sea coasts. Six other interviewees expressed confidence about water quantity either because they sat on ample groundwater, had spare capacity due to population decline in the past, or were located on the Great Lakes. The topic of water quality did not make most participants’ lists of headline worries. Although everyone ranked delivery of clean water as a top priority, they also noted that strict regulations combined with well-established testing and treatment methods made it relatively routine. Only one interviewee mentioned emerging challenges from microparticles and pharmaceuticals. Two focus group members fretted about groundwater contamination in their regions.

Addressing the challenges

When asked about how their organizations and cities are responding to system stressors, participants most frequently touched on the six solution categories (boxes) in Fig. 1. Attention was fairly evenly divided among the six categories, with 11 interviewees emphasizing each of the first four themes (communication and engagement, collaboration and networking, social learning, and planning), 10 highlighting innovation, and eight emphasizing structure and finance. All six categories featured prominently in both focus groups.

Communication and engagement

Nearly all study participants noted the importance of outreach to customers, rate payers, and citizens, but they emphasized different purposes of communication:

Participants also emphasized the need to keep key government administrators and elected officials informed via a range of formal and informal meetings, discussions, and educational sessions. On average, participants tended to view communication, engagement, and collaboration as instrumental activities necessary for achieving their organization’s goals rather than as open processes for exploring alternative futures.

Many approached communication as a bit of a chore, while others embraced it and spoke with pride about the long hours that they devoted to it. Among the latter, three interviewees in particular forcefully argued that both the public and elected officials can be awakened to the value of water and the need to invest in it, but only if utilities make a continuous commitment to educating people about the water business and sharing information about system issues, including financing challenges. Those managers emphasized the importance of demonstrating transparency to build trust, and then making the case for capital investments: “I’ve learned that people are open to hearing what the value proposition is. And that is our job, to make that claim…[that water system investments are] the best money they will ever spend and something that will matter to them more than anything” (interviewee, Mid-Atlantic).

Points of emphasis varied. One interviewee said that his organization’s communication strategy prioritizes public officials over the general public (Pacific Northwest). Another interviewee warned that it is hard to get things done “with the public sitting in our offices” (interviewee, Pacific Northwest). In general, however, interviews and focus groups generated strong consensus on the need for wide-ranging outreach with rate payers, customers, stakeholders, and public officials. These participants expressed a belief that such processes can lead to sustained cooperation to offset political tensions about rate increases and increase appreciation for public drinking water services.

The most commonly noted communication methods tended to be one-directional (annual reports and bill inserts), but two-way methods such as Twitter and Facebook were mentioned. Some participants noted obstacles to fuller engagement: “The trick is the two-way communication. We send a lot. Sending is easy. Receiving is hard.” (focus group participant, Pacific Northwest).

Two interviewees, both from small utilities, said that public outreach is not a priority for their organizations. According to one of these, “our customers know where to find us” if they need to communicate (Mid-Atlantic).

Collaboration and networking

Participants described a wide range of types of collaboration, from sharing of information and resources to joint goal setting and decision-making across different sectors, among water providers, or between departments within government. Cross-sector collaboration commonly occurred with roads and transportation departments—“so that we tear the street up one time and share in the restoration costs” (interviewee, Midwest)—and with electric utilities. Examples of the latter include providing reclaimed water for cooling nuclear and coal power plants, scheduling high-power-using activities at water plants to avoid periods of peak electricity demand, and generating electricity from waste. Participants described additional bilateral partnerships with landfills, hospitals, airports, neighborhood associations, Indian tribes, and the U.S. Coast Guard for a range of mutual benefits. Managers who cited concerns about the effects of climate change were most likely to discuss the value of broader, cross-sector, and multilateral networks focused on system-level resilience planning. Participants placed a high value on mutual assistance as a form of horizontal collaboration within the water sector, as exemplified by the Water/Wastewater Response Network (WARN). The importance of WARN was stressed by multiple study participants, some of whom had benefited directly from its work coordinating the sharing of emergency aid and assistance (personnel, equipment, materials, and services) between nearby utilities.

Without using the term social capital directly, participants implied the concept in both focus groups and at least three interviews when describing benefits gained through local and regional collaborations of various types. One interviewee (Pacific Northwest) said that the importance of local collaboration in securing new water sources was the single most important lesson he had learned as a water manager. In his words, “Everybody looks at the resource a little differently, but everybody wants it for some reason. So you have to work collaboratively.…Bring all of the stakeholders in and get everybody’s needs met as best you can. It’s going to take a lot longer to do that in a way, but you’ll actually get to a solution instead of ending up in court.” Where water rights are involved, power-sharing appears to be a fact of life rather than an aspiration.

Alongside the benefits of collaboration, all but one participant also noted significant points of tension within networks due to competing organizational agendas. In vertical, cross-scale networks that bridge federal, state, and local levels of government, participants noted the particular challenges of working with multiple agencies’ different priorities and cultures.

Social learning

Communication, citizen engagement, collaboration, and networks together create potential for social learning in which community members collect and share information that helps improve an SES’s capacity for adaptation and resilience. Only two interviewees were silent about learning. Eleven interviewees and members of both focus groups articulated ideas related to an organizational learning culture and described a diverse array of manifestations. These included adaptive management-type approaches to water system management, pilots and demonstrations, internal competitions, and portfolios of projects for developing new water sources (so that there is always a replacement when one initiative fails). Participants mentioned sharing technology and governance lessons via regional conferences and exchanges of smart practices between small systems under the aegis of a regional water authority. Seven interviewees referred to data dashboards or other performance-metric systems as important inputs to learning. Two small systems relied on contracts with outside firms to keep them up to date on technical developments. The importance of learning channels within professional associations, such as the AWWA and the Water Resources Foundation, received frequent mentions in both focus groups and interviews.

When asked to define resilience, several interviewees and focus group members included capacity for learning as a strategy for dealing with unforeseen system stresses.


Participants often noted the important role of planning in the same breath as flexibility, resilience, and learning, especially in the focus groups. Among the 11 interviewees and members of both focus groups who spoke with pride about their own utility’s planning efforts, some emphasized an inclusive, participatory approach to planning (particularly where the issue of future water supplies was a major concern), while others described a more technocratic approach focused on infrastructure replacement. In the latter case, the process known as asset management came up repeatedly. Conservation was viewed as a central component of planning in seven interviews and the first focus group. Some commenters touted the savings that successful conservation efforts create when new plants do not have to be built, while others noted complications when revenue losses from conservation have to be covered by rate increases.

Three of the 11 interviewees who talked about planning took what might be called an agile approach to planning: one large utility described their conservation planning initiatives as a carefully crafted trial-and-error process. One small utility described how they built rolling infrastructure replacement into day-to-day operations. A third interviewee described an iterative and participatory approach to community-wide resilience planning.


As noted earlier, utility managers take pride in actively avoiding risks to public health, while also embracing a continuous learning approach that invites innovative problem solving. One interviewee from a municipal enterprise in the Mid-Atlantic put it this way: “[Innovation] just needs to know that it has a home and a place, even in a water utility, where we will evaluate, be careful, but if it’s a good idea and we believe it will work—because we have done the right preparatory work, which is nearly always research, classic research, bench-testing, pilot testing—we will implement it. And then people start coming forward with lots more [fresh ideas].”

Participants proudly described social innovations related to increasing conservation, organizing volunteers, promoting ecotourism to save wild areas around water sources, and leveraging local organizations’ existing agendas and activities to boost community resilience. One interviewee also mentioned movements to encourage stormwater management practices at the household level. Technical innovations included green infrastructure, water reclamation projects, digesters, and alternative power generation, as well as natural engineering solutions to protect source water, such as living shorelines, wetlands treatment of wastewater, and integrated land management practices. Such projects defy the usual stereotype of utilities as resistant to change and innovation. And study participants expressed the belief that if the public knew more about these innovations, such stereotypes (one of the water sector themes) would fade. They also noted that state and federal regulations often create unnecessary obstacles to innovations such as water recycling.

Structure and finance

Study participants hailed from a diverse, multidimensional collection of organizational structures: independent authorities with elected boards, independent authorities with appointed boards, municipal departments that require city council approval of all medium-to-large expenditures, proprietary municipal departments in charge of their own revenues and expenditures, municipal departments organized around public works functions, municipal departments that combine environmental management with water services, agencies with control of their own revenues except when the city needs subsidies, regional authorities that coordinate smaller systems, wholesale sellers, retail sellers, and others.

From this heterogeneity, only three interviewees in our study said nothing about governance structure or power relationships. Among most who discussed the subject, eight interviewees and members of both focus groups expressed significant concerns about bureaucratic and political interference in utility decisions. To address those concerns, they emphasized the value of institutional autonomy, independence from politics and rigid rules, and structures that allow water managers to focus on one set of services instead of the multiple, often competing functions associated with a typical municipal department.

On the other hand, two interviewees and several focus group members employed in city departments expressed satisfaction with less formal autonomy because informal norms gave them latitude for reasonably independent decision-making. Members of the second focus group noted how formal autonomy can be misleading, as when nominally independent authorities are required to make large payments in lieu of taxes to city coffers. One interviewee and several focus group members staunchly maintained that no governance structure is necessarily better than another because performance depends on leadership, talent, and organizational culture more than structure.

The second focus group ultimately arrived at a robust consensus on two criteria for assessing good governance in the water sector: (1) ability to do full-cost pricing in order to achieve financial sustainability, and (2) ability to do long-term, system-wide planning (see Planning). Any structure that enables those functions should be judged positively, according to the group. Interviewees who addressed financing as a general topic also tended to support those ideals, and several also mentioned the principle that debt, rather than direct fees on current users, should be used to pay for capital improvements that will benefit future generations or newcomers to the area: “growth should pay for growth” (interviewee, Mid-Atlantic).

Enterprise fund arrangements in which the utility keeps its own revenue were touted by seven interviewees and members of both focus groups as supporting the two criteria: “If we have a savings, it immediately manifests itself into more capital construction out in the field. [Dollars from a recent rate increase] went right back out into the street to replace more water mains” (interviewee, Great Lakes).

Consolidating smaller systems under a regional authority, either through outright purchases or looser federation arrangements, was mentioned by five interviewees and members of the second focus group, all favorably. Benefits cited include increased reliability, redundancy, and resilience for small systems and the spreading of system-wide maintenance and upgrade costs across a larger customer base.


This study responds to calls for more research about the role of human agency in facilitating adaptation and transformation of SES toward greater sustainability (Olsson et al. 2014). The results provide insights into the priorities of one set of actors in adaptive governance transitions. Fig. 1’s themes and subthemes may be viewed as study participants’ guideposts for good governance in public water utilities in the United States.

Overall, the impression left by the participants’ comments may be summarized in terms of two potentially competing commitments: cautiously creative change and rock-solid continuity of services. Similar to previous research (Farrelly and Brown 2011), most of these water utility managers saw their jobs as requiring a delicate balance between innovation and reliability, with zero room for error in delivering abundant, clean water to homes, businesses, and firefighting. Much of the technical innovation was found on the wastewater side of the organizations, with social and business innovations on the drinking water side typically focused on conservation, disaster planning, and identification of new water sources. These water managers find themselves navigating hybrid organizational vessels through multiple external challenges posed by nature and politics. Many feel underappreciated for their efforts and generally misunderstood, except within the horizontal professional networks that they tend to view as high-functioning and mutually supportive learning environments.

Viewed through the lens of the research literature, the mix of themes represented by Fig. 1 looks like a practical operationalization of the scholarly distinction between adaptation, which refers to modifying current SES settings to withstand shocks and stresses, and transformation, which refers to recreating systems anew in the face of current or future existential threats (Walker et al. 2004, Folke et al. 2010, Olsson et al. 2014). The following integrative comments address both sides of that conceptual distinction.


Those who hope to see broad readiness for radical transformation among water sector actors may be disappointed by the results of this study. On one hand, these water managers expressed an openness to change. Only two or possibly three (all representing smaller systems) could be characterized overall as satisfied with the status quo and unperturbed about the future. All of the others expressed aspirations for progress and change. They saw room for improvement, and many spoke of the need for continuous learning and adaptation. They also demonstrated some capacity for embracing changes that benefit the longer term future while imposing short-term costs on their own organizations, conservation being the prime example of this because of its negative impact on most utilities’ short-term revenue streams.

On the other hand, sustainable, integrated, whole-cycle paradigms of water management consist of many promising practices, such as rainwater capture and usage (including rooftop collection and rain gardens), effluent recycling, reuse of gray water, strict separation of waste streams, water and nutrient budgets at multiple scales, increases in pervious surfaces, stormwater detention and infiltration, groundwater storage, and extreme decentralization to self-contained water systems off the grid (Heaney et al. 2000, Li et al. 2018). But only a few of these ideas came up in our conversations, and none were treated as major themes. Participants by and large seemed to be answering our questions based on a time horizon measured in months or, in some cases, a year or two, rather than decades.

One participant spoke of transformational regime change when he noted that low-lying coastal cities must decide whether and when to abandon their infrastructure and move inland as part of an “organized retreat” in reaction to sea level rise. But he was the exception. The only interviewee who called for “a paradigm shift” was referring to changing the mindset among maintenance crews—a much narrower understanding of paradigm change than one finds in the resilience and transition literatures.

Deliberate transformations “often involve the questioning of values, the challenging of assumptions, and the capacity to closely examine fixed beliefs, identities, and stereotypes” (O’Brien 2012:670)—in other words, triple-loop learning (Pahl-Wostl 2009). Yet, the careful, function-preserving resilience that water managers necessarily embrace may hamper the disruptive, transformative regime changes that scholars are calling for. While utility managers are innovating socially and technologically within constraints at the local scale and preparing and rehearsing diligently for major system disturbances, they are also investing in the adaptability of the current water regime and thus reinforcing and reproducing it. Hardening large-scale infrastructure, upgrading centralized systems, and seeking further consolidation of smaller systems under regional umbrellas—all of these activities create sunk costs (both financially and psychologically) that make the idea of an organized retreat, radical decentralization of water services, or other paradigm shifts ever more distant and unrealistic.

On the social side of the SES equation, none of our study’s participants talked about real power-sharing of the type that would require commitments from utility leaders or public officials to do more than listen. Granting some decision-making authority to a consumers’ board, for example, would entail the kind of fundamental questioning of the status quo that characterizes triple-loop learning, but participants did not mention such initiatives. Some participants recognized the popular stereotype of utilities as rigid, change-averse, and lacking in creativity, and they provided a nuanced, well-reasoned explanation for why a healthy measure of those traits is necessary for drinking water systems and how those traits can co-exist with significant innovation at lower scales. Their majority (though not universal) embrace of organizational autonomy for water utilities, combined with a desire to build public support for upgrading existing systems and public understanding of water’s value proposition, adds up to a sort of soft technocratic perspective on water provision as a public service business.


The concept of adaptation more fully captures the priority concerns of this group of study participants than does transformation. The water managers’ dual orientation toward both reliability and continual learning echoes the idea that adaptive institutions should have just enough flexibility (not too much or too little) (Olsson et al. 2006, Young 2010), as well as the general recommendation of Pahl-Wostl et al. (2007:9): “For social learning to increase both the adaptive capacity and the effectiveness of water management requires a fine balance between the stabilizing and the change-supporting elements of a governance regime.”

Table 2 aligns the axial-code themes from Fig. 1 with factors identified in the broad SES literature on governance for adaptive capacity and resilience, including second-tier variables from Elinor Ostrom’s (2007, 2009) diagnostic framework. (Citations in column 2 represent a selective fraction of the vast literature published to date.) The last column compares insights from our study’s participants with scholarly themes. Table 2 illustrates how our participants’ answers reinforce the importance of governance practices highlighted in previous research on adaptive capacity and resilience. These include social learning and development of social capital through various forms of collaboration, communication, and citizen and stakeholder engagement, as well as capacity for innovation and sufficient autonomy and authority to make decisions based on system needs without undue political interference or excessive bureaucracy.

The frequent repetition of themes across interviews and focus groups suggests some professional isomorphism in the water management field, likely aided by the professional associations that were so often mentioned. The correspondence that we found between professional and scholarly themes is more difficult to explain and merits further study. It may have resulted from cross fertilization of ideas between managers and researchers, although we saw no evidence that these particular managers were engaging with the scholarly literature. Perhaps it confirms that the research community is asking questions that touch issues of deep concern to those with direct responsibility for the resource. It also may indicate progress toward a roughly overlapping consensus on the best paths forward. Although many scholars support a more sweeping vision of sustainability transformation than these study participants described, the themes in Table 2 offer a shared conceptual vocabulary that may be useful in efforts to bridge those differences.

Placing the study participants’ priorities and concerns in the context of the scholarly literature also identifies two stray themes that figure prominently in the scholarly literature but not in this study’s data. The first is leadership, identified by researchers as a significant contributor to effective transitions and transformations; yet only one of our participants (an interviewee) mentioned it, and only very briefly. Perhaps personal modesty prevented the participants from talking about leadership directly as a theme. It could be inferred from many of their descriptions of local initiatives that they themselves were leading the work. The second is equity and social justice, another notable factor in the academic literature that did not come up in our interviews or focus groups. It is difficult to speculate responsibly about the reasons for that conspicuous absence.

Table 3 examines these additional themes using the same template as Table 2. Both of the missing themes deserve further attention in future research with water utility managers.

Study limitations

Although a qualitative study of this size typically focuses on depth of insights more than breadth of coverage, we were pleased by the heterogeneity of organizations captured in our sample and the diversity of views expressed by participants. Still, the constraints on generalizing from a qualitative, exploratory study of this kind must be acknowledged.

In addition, we note that this group of participants may have a higher average level of interest in resilience and adaptation than a randomly selected group of nonparticipants, given their willingness to participate in the study and the effort required to coordinate a phone call (interviewees) or attend a special session at the AWWA conference (focus group members).

The focus group results may have been influenced by group dynamics (as with all focus groups) or by topics being emphasized at the AWWA conference where the focus groups were convened. If so, then the interview results may capture the frank priorities of participants more reliably than the focus groups, but that supposition cannot be tested within our data.

Finally, the study’s stated focus on water management may have unintentionally prompted participants to think more narrowly about public health and environmental objectives without due consideration of the larger social and political implications of their organizations’ frameworks and practices. Perhaps a more explicit focus on social and political dimensions in both our questions and our interpretations of findings may have generated different conclusions.


Transitions toward adaptive governance for SES sustainability must begin where the relevant actors are positioned. For that reason, acquiring deeper understanding of water managers’ current postures and priorities may be helpful in planning for effective transitions. Examining the views of 22 U.S. water utility managers in the light of scholarship on SES adaptation, resilience, transition, and transformation highlights the following questions for further research.

As scholarly understanding of governance’s role in SES adaptation and transformation deepens and expands, the views of frontline experts and managers can provide valuable insights and directions for future research.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We would like to thank the participants in this study for taking time from their busy schedules to speak with us and providing feedback on earlier drafts. Many thanks to Doug Yoder and Kevin Morley for advice given at multiple stages of analysis. We are grateful to Cynthia Lane and Alex Gerling for patient facilitation in organizing focus groups at the American Water Works Association’s annual conference in Chicago. Special thanks to Maegan Eichinger for detailed assistance in the data collection process and general support provided in the completion of this study. Lastly, we would like to thank American University and the University of North Carolina Wilmington for supporting data collection, and the American University Library for funding open-access publication.


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Address of Correspondent:
Jennifer C. Biddle
601 S. College Road
Wilmington, NC
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