Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Major Professor

Maya Trotz, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John Jermier, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Michael Sweeney, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Ali Yalcin, Ph.D.


discourse analysis, freelisting, indicators, metrics, triple bottom line


Urban water utilities in the United States face challenges due to a combination of external drivers. These include urbanization and population growth, which are stressing a system of aging infrastructure. Compliance with increasing regulations is also a challenge in a fiscally-constrained economic environment. A changing climate threatens infrastructure and past assumptions for water supply and quality. Urban utilities provide clean water and sanitation services to over 80% of the country’s population and its industrial centers. Therefore, the sustainability of these water utilities are crucial to the country’s and the public’s well-being.

New operating models are emerging for a “utility of the future.” Future utilities will recover resources, reduce their overall environmental impact, partner in the local economy, and deliver watershed-wide benefits to improve quality of life. These are all elements of a sustainable utility, but the sector has not agreed upon an applicable definition of sustainability, which intuitively incorporates an inter-generational approach to utility operations. For the purposes of this research, a sustainable utility is defined as one that will provide its crucial services for current and future generations, protect public and environmental health, and enable economic growth, all while minimizing resource consumption. Previous research provided little guidance on the most important sustainable practices for U.S. urban water utilities or the key attributes of those utilities that enable the shift toward sustainability. Additionally, the practice of sustainability measurement, and the closely-related practice of performance measurement, has not been widely adopted in the U.S. water sector.

This research program addressed the challenge of providing guidance on, and measurement of, sustainability by developing a framework to quickly and quantitatively assess a utility’s sustainability and key organizational attributes. A mixed methods approach to this research used qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The approach utilized accepted anthropological methods to assess engineering and business concepts at water utilities. Data originated from semi-structured interviews of an external advisory committee of 12 widely-recognized, progressive, U.S. water utility leaders along with online surveys of water utility professionals.

The analyzed data revealed the most important sustainable practices for sustainable utilities and organizational attributes that enable the shift toward sustainable operations. Practices are actionable, quantitative, and in some cases, unique to the water sector. Attributes are generally qualitative; largely controlled by internal decisions and actions; and influence a utility’s ability to operate sustainably. Datasets for sustainable practices and organizational attributes were generated using the techniques of discourse analysis on the semi-structured interview transcripts and freelisting on the online survey results. Top results from each dataset were cross-compared to generate the final, consolidated list of top practices and attributes.

A sustainability index was developed from the top eight sustainable practices, measured via a total of 14 indicators. Indices were tailored to water, wastewater, and combined utilities. The top sustainable practices were: Education and Communication; Financial Management; Green Infrastructure; Habitat/Watershed Protection; Long-term Resource Plan; Resource Recovery; and Water Conservation. These eight practices provided sufficient coverage of the economic, social, environmental, and infrastructure components of the triple bottom line-plus concept used to frame sustainability for this research.

This research also established the top six organizational attributes that enable the shift toward sustainability. These attributes were: Board Support / Political Will; Flexible Staff; Innovative Culture; Leadership; Organizational Commitment; and Staff Training / Development. These six attributes were assessed via a total of seven indicators, with guidance and scaling similar to the practices for ease of use by the end user.

Current sustainability and performance measurement frameworks were analyzed for indicators and measurement approaches that matched the top practices and attributes. Some of the practices and only one of the six attributes matched an existing framework. When there was a match, the existing assessment was used to help with ease of use. In other cases, new indicators, guidance, and scaling (for assessment) were developed. Practices and attributes without a match suggests these aspects of sustainable utilities are relatively new to the sector, or at least, measurement of these practices and attributes is not widespread.

The practices and attributes were combined into the final framework, a survey tool, which was pilot tested with three water utilities. The pilot testing demonstrated that the survey was comprehensive, yet at the same time, concise enough that it could be completed in under two hours by a limited number of utility staff. The application of this framework to a representative sample of U.S. urban water utilities can generate data to establish which attributes correlate to sustainable utilities. This will help utilities focus their limited resources on attributes which are shown to enable the shift toward sustainability.