I recently rekindled my interests in how regional special districts serve as central actors that can facilitate intergovernmental collaboration. Special districts are local governments that are generally designed to provide a single or a small range of functions. Like general-purpose governments (cities and counties), special districts usually have the powers to tax and use public debt. Being specialized entities with access to public financing sources, and having cross-jurisdictional authority, regional districts can have the fiscal and technical capacity to orchestrate policy actions among multiple stakeholders. I am currently developing research that explores this issue. It examines how water utility districts act as centralized organizational units that facilitate regional action for climate change. So, one might ask, why would water utilities even be interested in organizing collective action efforts around climate change in the first place? In this brief positing, I explore this question with a few real-life examples of water utilities involvement in regional efforts to address the issue of climate change.
Climate change can have significant implications for water suppliers both in terms of adaptation strategies that reduce the effects of climate change and mitigation strategies that reduce their operational impacts on the environment. For example, droughts can directly impact these entities by forcing them to increase building infrastructure for greater groundwater capacity or diversify water sources to reduce supply shortages. Storms and flooding can also impose impacts that force utilities to adapt by enhancing operations, relocating infrastructure to higher elevation, and by modifying land use planning. Adaptation strategies are not only reactive but can also be proactive through preparedness measures where utilities make long-term assessments to prevent exposures to future water supply disruptions. For instance, water suppliers are now beginning to look to alternative production processes like desalination to alleviate future climate change scenarios that can destabilize water supplies.
Many regional water utility districts, such as the Goleta Water District of California and the Las Vegas Valley Water District, have actively expanded their portfolios to serve explicitly as facilitators of regional sustainability. The Goleta Water District for example, has enacted a sustainability action plan that outlines its strategies to maintain sustainable water delivery. Similarly, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has designed a blueprint to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expand renewable energy, and maintain a sustainable water supply. Other water utility districts such as the Southern Nevada Water authority, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the Tampa Bay Water district in Florida have all endeavored to foster regional strategies that guide efforts to address climate change.
Climate change has also prompted water utilities to employ measures to evaluate their operational processes to reduce their contributions of greenhouse gases. For example, the Freeport Sewer District in Maine transitioned its operations to use more energy efficient renewable heating technology to offset the high fiscal and energy costs required to treat wastewater with traditional heating oil. Other utilities such as the Stockbridge Drinking Water Plant in Massachusetts and the Riverside Public Utilities in California have also changed their operations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by implementing water-source and geothermal heat pump technologies that save energy by moving heat through a loop system instead of using conventional heat generation. These and several other utility providers throughout the United States and globally are beginning to embrace the philosophy of functioning as “low-carbon urban water utilities” that implement low-carbon and low-energy production methods that yield both carbon neutrality and lower operational costs.
By Jayce Farmer
I am an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. My areas of expertise include urban policy, state and local governance, administrative studies, and public finance policy.