The Role of Adaptive Capacity in Incremental and Transformative Adaptation in Three Large U.S. Urban Water Systems

Lisa Dilling, Meaghan E. Daly, William R. Travis, Andrea J. Ray, Olga V. Wilhelmi
Posted on: 4/25/2024 - Updated on: 4/25/2024

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Urban water systems need to serve increasing numbers of people under a changing climate. Studies of systems facing extreme events, such as drought, can clarify the nature of adaptive capacity and whether this might support incremental (marginal changes) or transformative adaptation (fundamental system shifts) to climate change. 

We conducted comparative case studies of three major metropolitan water systems in the United States to understand how actions taken in response to drought affected adaptive capacity and whether the adaptive capacity observed in these systems fosters the preconditions needed for transformative adaptation. 

We find that while there is ample evidence of existing and potential adaptive capacity, this can be either enabled or diminished by the specific actions taken and their cascading effects on other parts of the system. We also find social dimensions, such as public acceptance, learning, trust, and collaboration, to be as critical as physical elements of adaptive capacity in urban water systems. Finally, we suggest that changes in practices initiated during drought, combined with sustained engagement, collaboration, and education, can lead to substantial and long-lasting changes in values around water, a precursor to transformative adaptation.


Dilling, L., Daly, M.E., Travis, W.R., Ray, A.J., Wilhelmi, O.V. (2023). The role of adaptive capacity in incremental and transformative adaptation in three large U.S. Urban water systems. Global Environmental Change, 79: 102649.

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