Water Utility Districts as Facilitators of Regional Climate Change Partnerships

Modern urban wastewater treatment plant.

By Jayce Farmer (University of Nevada-Las Vegas)

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation colloquium.

Unlike much of the literature on regional activity that centers on how general-purpose local governments choose to respond to externalities or other cross-boundary drivers, Jayce Farmer (University of Nevada-Las Vegas) centers existing water utility districts as the key independent variable. He demonstrates that their presence substantially encourages general-purpose local governments to participate in regional climate change partnerships. This finding reaffirms a pattern consistent across the colloquium: creating a regional entity with a specific set of powers and authorities (like a water utility district) is more than a single response to a collective action problem; that new entity then has its own independent agency, discretion, and internal incentives constrained by the regional network in which it operates. Other posts have considered agency and incentives: co-regionally; cross-regionally; and in the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities leaders of regional entities need to help these organizations thrive. Here, Farmer examines the reverse-directionality of the local-regional loop: when regional entities take independent action to promote specific activities for general-purpose local governments to undertake.


The increasing pressures of climate change can pose challenges for public water utilities through the economic and environmental impacts of droughts, excessive heat, flooding, and the deterioration of water quality (EPA 2021; Dombrowsky, Bauer and Scheumann 2016; Cromwell, Smith and Raucher 2007). Such challenges have placed utility districts at the forefront of finding strategies to sustain region-wide water supplies. Therefore, these entities can have great interests in taking sustainability actions that can result in direct benefits through energy and water conservation related cost-savings (Homsy 2016). Furthermore, the fiscal and technical capacity of utility districts can also produce external sustainability related benefits that transcend local boundaries and produce positive impacts for entire regions.

Special districts in general are seen as centralized organizations that can facilitate collective action among other local fragmented units (Feiock 2013). The special purpose nature and revenue generating capabilities of utility districts in particular give them the fiscal and technical capacity to not only engage in basic utility service provision, but also address related regional concerns such as climate change impacts. The fiscal advantages of public utilities can provide them expanded abilities to advance environmental protection policies and strengthen network relationships with support that leverages exchanges (Homsy 2016; Andrew 2009). The staffing and specialized expertise within utility operations can also give them the technical capacity to pursue and guide others in innovative strategies for sustainability endeavors (Homsy 2016). Thus, the resources and benefits of public utility districts can support local governments and ease regional collaboration for sustainability actions between jurisdictions. In this essay, I use this understanding to make an empirical link between  water utility districts and local government regional sustainability actions for climate change.

Water Utility Districts and Regional Sustainability

Water utility districts are the most common type of special district utility providers and are generally established to provide water supply, sewer, and other related utility services to citizens across a region. For example, the Five Star Water Supply District in Alabama serves the populations of jurisdictions across Autauga and Elmore counties. Here, this district plays an integral role in water service provision by working with localities and other utility providers for surface water supply.

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 (Cromwell, Smith and Raucher 2007). 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 (EPA 2021). 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 (EPA 2021). 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 (Cromwell, Smith and Raucher 2007).

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 (WUCA 2021).

Climate change has also prompted water utilities to employ measures to evaluate their operational processes to reduce their contributions of greenhouse gasses. 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 (EPA 2022).   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 (EPA 2022).  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 (Ballard et al. 2018). 

Why View Utility Districts as Facilitators of Regional Collective Action?

Special districts are often overlooked in government studies, but collectively consist of the largest number of local governments throughout the United States. Like general purpose governments, special districts frequently levy taxes, impose fees, and accumulate public sources of debt. However, special districts are primarily used to fill service gaps as they are created to provide a narrow scope of services that are not adequately provided by general purpose governments (Goodman and Leland 2019; Farmer 2010). Utility districts, like other special districts, serve as local government units whose sole purpose is to produce and or provide a singular or a small range of utility services.  

As centralized facilitators of collective action, regional special districts have been viewed as potentially influencing collaboration efforts among general purpose local governments (Feiock 2013; Dilworth 2021; Andrew 2009; Farmer 2010). Research conducted by Kwon, Feiock and Bae (2012) showed centralized regional entities as being influential in sparking collaboration among fragmented local jurisdictions. Their examination suggested that regional entities can reduce transaction costs for local governments and serve as influential tools that inform self-organizing cooperation efforts. Rodrigues et al. (2012) also presented evidence of this when they revealed that inter-municipal corporations absorbed the transaction costs of interlocal collaboration efforts among Portuguese local governments. As suggested in the literature, special purpose governments can be thought to internalize unconsidered impacts over a broad geographic area for specific service functions in ways that are less obtrusive than general purpose government consolidation (Feiock 2013; Farmer 2010; Carr and Farmer 2011).

Organizations within a fragmented landscape will seek to forge relationships with other more centralized organizations to gain access to support and resources (Andrew 2009). Research examining institutional arrangements has found that local governments are more likely to seek support from centralized units such as counties, state governments, or special districts that can easily mobilize and mediate intergovernmental resources, information, and human capital (Jung, Song and Park 2019; Andrew 2009). Public utilities districts are thought to have the necessary resources to reduce coordination problems due to their fiscal and technical capacity. For example, survey research conducted by Homsy (2016) showed that utilities can guide and implement activities that involve highly asset specific policies, align goals and strategies with staff expertise, and provide direct access to technical information and funding sources that would otherwise be inaccessible. Because public utilities can have a vested interest in environmental protection and its potential impacts, they can also be fiscally and administratively motivated to promote policy actions (Homsy 2016; Homsy and Warner 2020). With their resource capacity and policy incentives, public utilities have been found to have the adequate infrastructure to facilitate municipal cooperation and enhance the adoption of municipal sustainability policies (Curley et al. 2021; Homsy 2016). Therefore, I hypothesize that cities within a region with a water utility district will more likely engage in regional collaborative partnerships for climate change.

Analysis of Municipal Climate Change Partnerships

I tested this hypothesis with data drawn from survey responses on regional collaborative sustainability efforts found within the 2015 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) survey on sustainability policies and programs. The survey response rate was 22.2%, with 1,899 local governments responding. The sample for this study came from surveyed cities with matching data within the U.S. Census of Governments historical finances for 2012. This led to a sample size of 1,124 cities across 48 states. The outcome variable denotes whether a municipality cooperated with other local governments within its region on climate change mitigation issues (yes = 1; 0 otherwise). The key predictor variable for this analysis, water utility district in region, is measured as 1 denoting that a municipality resides within a county area with a public water utility district, and 0 otherwise. Data for this variable came from the 2012 Census of Governments. The descriptions, sources, and measurements of all variables are reported in Appendix 1 (Table A1).

Table 1 shows the estimates developed with a Bayesian probit analysis. This table reports the posterior means, Monte Carlo standard errors, credible interval parameters with a 95% probability, and post-estimation hypothesis test results (based on  > 0 or  < 0). Accounting for the reality that not all cities reside within counties that have a water utility district, the Bayesian interval hypothesis test reveals that there is a 95.2% probability that the existence of a water utility district will facilitate choices for regional partnerships on climate change mitigation. This strength of evidence suggests that there is a real relationship between water utility districts and municipalities choosing to engage in climate change partnerships. Given this output, water utility districts are likely to act as centralized organizations that enable collective action endeavors between municipal partners.

Table 1. Bayesian Estimates of Regional Partnerships for Climate Change Mitigation

 VariableMeanMCSECredible IntervalHypothesis Test
Water utility district in region0.2480.0080.0450, 0.4550.952
Political fragmentation-0.5160.013-0.982, -0.0670.003
Municipality owns water utility-0.1710.005-0.365, 0.0270.100
Council-manager0.0550.007-0.156, 0.2770.729
Local intergovernmental revenue per capita0.2920.019-0.266, 0.8580.601
Municipal taxes per capita0.1650.0050.0115, 0.3210.948
Population logged0.1170.0030.040, 0.1940.926
Percent White non-Hispanic-0.1930.022-0.700, 0.3290.990
Median property value8.03E-082.80E-08-8.65E-08, 2.48E-070.806
Variance Between Groups    
State: 0.1770.0020.069, 0.362 
U.S. geographic region: 0.0550.0040.004, 0.272 
MCMC sample size50,000   
N observations1,124   
Acceptance rate0.36   
Note: Outputs in bold denote evidence of effects.

Utility Districts as Conduits of Collective Action

Analyzing utility district involvement in municipal partnerships for climate change provided an opportunity to better understand their connection to regionalism. The analysis demonstrated how special districts as regionalized central actors can influence municipal choices for interlocal sustainability partnerships. A key result of this analysis suggests that water utility districts can serve as institutional conduits of collective action. These findings are consistent with prior work that suggest that the presence of enabling centralized institutional structures minimize obstructions to regional collective action (Kwon, Feiock and Bae 2012).

Water utility districts like other regional and single-purpose governments provide services and resources over a broad geographic area for specialized functions (Feiock 2013). This gives them the technical and fiscal capacity to lend guidance and assistance to local jurisdictions for policy endeavors (Homsy 2016). Utilities are especially equipped to fulfill this role as their professional staff and revenue generating capabilities allow them to not only finance policy endeavors but also provide technical knowledge that can remove information uncertainties, align goals, and assist in developing policy strategies. Thus, these advantages lend to their abilities to minimize coordination problems that might otherwise obstruct collective action efforts. Consistent with the broader theme of this colloquium, the findings as illustrated above suggest that water utility districts are key for facilitating regional partnerships (Kim 2021; Nelles and Rickabaugh 2021; Dilworth 2021). Although they are not classified as Regional Public Sector Organizations (RPSOs), special districts can still act as regional entities incentivized by the economic and environmental impacts of climate change to become public entrepreneurs that guide co-regional activities (Rickabaugh 2021; Nelles and Rickabaugh 2021). This sentiment coincides with more traditional perspectives on special districts that presume that they can often serve as centralized entities that can link individual units together to address issues that transcend jurisdictional boundaries (Foster 1997; Feiock 2013; Andrew 2009; Farmer 2010).

The evidence above not only speaks to the importance of special districts as regional actors, but also as stakeholders with vested interests and resources to facilitate beneficial collaborative outcomes (Homsy and Warner 2020). Special districts can serve as alternative solutions to collective action problems when jurisdictions are faced with uncertainty (Feiock 2013). In this sense, special purpose governments can serve as independent or regulated third parties with specific tools that can forge regional partnerships. With their own governing boards and taxing authority,special districts can have built in advantages given their fiscal and administrative autonomy, technical expertise, and fiscal capacity to stabilize highly specified regional exchanges.


This forum post contributes to the small body of work that places an emphasis on special purpose governments (Foster 1997; Carr 2006; Carr and Farmer 2011; Shi 2017; Goodman and Leland 2019). However, much of this work examines special districts as mechanisms to overcome service gaps and fiscal limitations to expand vertical fragmentation. Therefore, research has primarily observed the causes behind the proliferation of these entities over time. The current work instead observed special districts as a causal factor to examine their roles in regional governance. To this end, I examined how centralized regional actors affected municipal choice for sustainability partnerships. Using water utility districts as a focal point allowed us to observe how entities with the geographic scope, political autonomy and enhanced fiscal capacity promote regional sustainability actions (Homsy 2016; Homsy and Warner 2020). These often overlooked governmental units can have a great impact on the policy actions and choices of their general purpose counterparts. Within the context of public utilities, this work contributed to an understudied, but important question about how special districts impact regional actions.

While I placed a sole emphasis on water utility districts and their connection with regional actions for climate change, sustainability issues extend beyond climate change and can involve a broad array of issues. Utilities, whether electric, gas or water, are often faced with finding solutions to sustainability problems that have environmental, economic, and social equity impacts (Homsy and Warner 2020; Switzer, Wang and Hirschvogel 2020). Therefore, future work should explore the regional impacts of public utility providers across different sectors, within the context of sustainability outcomes across multiple policy domains. Likewise, as sustainability can encompass a broad array of policy issues, research must also consider the impacts of other centralized institutional actors, including those that fall within the genus of RPSOs (Rickabaugh 2021). Expanding attention to broader policy issues and their connection with a broader scope of institutional actors can advance our understanding in urban regional scholarship.


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Ballard, Simone, Jose Porro, and Corinne Trommsdorff. 2018. The Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Urban Water Utility. WaCCliM. https://wacclim.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018_WaCCliM_Roadmap_EN_SCREEN.pdf (accessed October 27, 2021). London: IWA Publishing.

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Curley, Cali, Nicky Harrison, Corey Kewei, and Shan Zhou. 2021. “Collaboration Mitigates Barriers of Utility Ownership on Policy Adoption: Evidence from the United States.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 64(1): 124-44.

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Appendix 1

Table A1. Descriptions and Sources of Assessed Factors

VariableMean/Prop.Standard DeviationMinMaxDescriptionSource
Municipal partnerships for climate change mitigation (DV)0.1960.39701Whether municipality engaged in regional partnership for climate change mitigation (0 = no; 1 = yes)ICMA (2015)
Water utility district in region0.5900.49101Whether a water utility district is in county (0 = no; 1 = yes)U.S. Census (2012)
Political fragmentation0.1720.3310.0023.450Total general purpose governments within a county area per capita.U.S. Census (2012)
Municipality owns water utility0.7370.44001Whether city owns a water utility operation (0 = no; 1 = yes)ICMA (2015)
Council-manager0.6740.46901Whether city has the council-manager form of government (0 = no; 1 = yes)ICMA (2015)
Local intergovernmental revenue per capita0.0530.1440.0011.815Per capita transfers from other local governments.U.S. Census (2012)
Municipal taxes per capita0.6220.5360.0015.620Per capita tax revenue from municipal taxes.U.S. Census (2012)
Population logged9.7221.2567.75015.150Natural log of a city’s total population.U.S. Census (2012)
Percent White non-Hispanic0.7980.1710.0571.000Percent of a city’s population White non-Hispanic.U.S. Census (2012)
Median property value2.56E+054.94E+054.05E-019.74E+06Median property values in a city jurisdiction.U.S. Census (2012)
State01Dummy variables for state geographic region (individual state descriptions available upon request).U.S. Census (2012)
U.S. geographic region      
  Midwest0.3350.47201Whether city is in Midwest region of U.S.  (0 = no; 1 = yes)U.S. Census (2012)
  South0.3240.46801Whether city is in south region of U.S.  (0 = no; 1 = yes)U.S. Census (2012)
  West0.2520.43401Whether city is in west region of U.S.  (0 = no; 1 = yes)U.S. Census (2012)

For more information about how we are using language in this colloquium, see this link:

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