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

Karen J Baehler, American University
Jennifer C Biddle, University of North Carolina Wilmington


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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

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087