Environmental Management

, Volume 52, Issue 1, pp 179–195 | Cite as

Vulnerability of Water Systems to the Effects of Climate Change and Urbanization: A Comparison of Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Oregon (USA)

  • Kelli L. LarsonEmail author
  • Colin Polsky
  • Patricia Gober
  • Heejun Chang
  • Vivek Shandas


The coupled processes of climate change and urbanization pose challenges for water resource management in cities worldwide. Comparing the vulnerabilities of water systems in Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Oregon, this paper examines (1) exposures to these stressors, (2) sensitivities to the associated impacts, and (3) adaptive capacities for responding to realized or anticipated impacts. Based on a case study and survey-based approach, common points of vulnerability include: rising exposures to drier, warmer summers, and suburban growth; increasing sensitivities based on demand hardening; and limited capacities due to institutional and pro-growth pressures. Yet each region also exhibits unique vulnerabilities. Comparatively, Portland shows: amplified exposures to seasonal climatic extremes, heightened sensitivity based on less diversified municipal water sources and policies that favor more trees and other irrigated vegetation, and diminished adaptive capacities because of limited attention to demand management and climate planning for water resources. Phoenix exhibits elevated exposure from rapid growth, heightened sensitivities due to high water demands and widespread increases in residential and commercial uses, and limited adaptive capacities due to weak land use planning and “smart growth” strategies. Unique points of vulnerability suggest pathways for adapting to urban-environmental change, whether through water management or land planning. Greater coordination between the land and water sectors would substantially reduce vulnerabilities in the study regions and beyond.


Water management Vulnerability Climate change Adaptive capacity Urban sustainability 



Financial assistance for this Sector Applications Research Program (SARP) project was provided by the Climate Program Office of the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pursuant to NOAA Award No. NA09OAR4310140. Supplementary support was also provided by: National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant SES-0345945, Decision Center for a Desert City I and SES-0951366, DCDC II: Urban Climate Adaptation, at Arizona State University; NSF awards OCE-0423565 and OCE-1026859, the Plum Island Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research (PIE LTER) program, and BCS-0709685, BCS-0948984 and SES-0849985 at Clark University; and by a sustainability grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation at Portland State. The Portland Water Bureau provided in-kind support as well. Finally, the authors thank Ray Quay and Lorna Stickel for their insights and contributions to this project, in addition to the water and land use planners who participated in our survey and/or attended our workshops. Barbara Trapido-Lurie and Benjamin Lobato also deserve thanks for their assistance with graphics. Note, however, the statements, findings, and recommendations herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA, NSF, or other project supporters and contributors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kelli L. Larson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Colin Polsky
    • 2
  • Patricia Gober
    • 3
  • Heejun Chang
    • 4
  • Vivek Shandas
    • 5
  1. 1.Schools of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Graduate School of GeographyClark UniversityWorcesterUSA
  3. 3.University of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada
  4. 4.Department of GeographyPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA
  5. 5.School of Urban Studies and PlanningPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA

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