iSAW: Integrating structure, actors, and water to study socio-hydro-ecological systems

Rebecca L. Hale
Andrea Armstrong
Michelle A. Baker
Sean Bedingfield
David Betts
Caleb Buahin
Martin Buchert
Todd Crowl
R. Ryan Dupont
James R. Ehleringer
Joanna Endter-Wada
Courtney Flint
Jacqualine Grant
Sarah Hinners
Jeffery S. Horsburgh Utah State University
Douglas Jackson-Smith
Amber S. Jones
Carlos Licon
Sarah E. Null
Augustina Odame
Diane E. Pataki
David Rosenberg
Madlyn Runburg
Philip Stoker
Courtenay Strong


Urbanization, climate, and ecosystem change represent major challenges for managing water resources. Although water systems are complex, a need exists for a generalized representation of these systems to identify important components and linkages to guide scientific inquiry and aid water management. We developed an integrated Structure-Actor-Water framework (iSAW) to facilitate the understanding of and transitions to sustainable water systems. Our goal was to produce an interdisciplinary framework for water resources research that could address management challenges across scales (e.g., plot to region) and domains (e.g., water supply and quality, transitioning, and urban landscapes). The framework was designed to be generalizable across all human–environment systems, yet with sufficient detail and flexibility to be customized to specific cases. iSAW includes three major components: structure (natural, built, and social), actors (individual and organizational), and water (quality and quantity). Key linkages among these components include: (1) ecological/hydrologic processes, (2) ecosystem/geomorphic feedbacks, (3) planning, design, and policy, (4) perceptions, information, and experience, (5) resource access and risk, and (6) operational water use and management. We illustrate the flexibility and utility of the iSAW framework by applying it to two research and management problems: understanding urban water supply and demand in a changing climate and expanding use of green storm water infrastructure in a semi-arid environment. The applications demonstrate that a generalized conceptual model can identify important components and linkages in complex and diverse water systems and facilitate communication about those systems among researchers from diverse disciplines.