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Water Partnerships Overview

Water Partnerships include formal and informal agreements between water systems and community partners that strengthen our ability in California to ensure safe and sustainable drinking water. The State Water Board supports water partnerships whenever feasible with SAFER project funding and project support outreach and engagement. Visit our Partnership Toolbox for additional tools and step-by-step guidance on the process of consolidation or regionalization, or contact your local SAFER staff engineer to discuss a potential project.

Types of Partnerships

Small public water systems are often less resilient to drought and fire; have more difficulty adjusting to regulatory changes; struggle to fund infrastructure maintenance and replacements; and may lack access to qualified staff. Partnering to share local resources allows water systems to maintain their local identity and involves less transfer of responsibility than consolidation or regionalization.

Local Resource Sharing

Local resource sharing includes formal and informal agreements that allow water systems to decrease costs and afford specialized personnel and equipment while sustainably managing local water supplies. Savings from local resource sharing can be used for needed improvements, funding reserves, or paying debts and are especially useful in rural areas where operators and specialized staff are less accessible.

  • Informal partnerships include sharing local knowledge and coordinated purchasing, to creating mutual aid agreements for emergency response.
    • For example, several public water systems that serve a rural agricultural area coordinate to purchase treatment chemicals together, leveraging purchasing power and maintain autonomy by taking turns in the process.
  • Formal partnerships include a contract between water systems or other service providers. Contracts can include the shared use of a water source, billing services, purchasing agreements, and even procurement of all required certified operator and maintenance services. In California, water systems can form a Joint Power Authority (JPA), a legal entity with rights that allow for regional coordination but protect the financial interests of the original systems.
    • For example, a community did not have sufficient water supply to provide adequate fire protection for the town. Water supply concerns and infrastructure needs led the village to contract all public works services to a nearby entity.
    • For example, four water systems in Northern California struggle with cyclical water supply after repeated years of drought. They banded together to form a Joint Power Authority with physical interties to allow for water sharing as needed.

Consolidation & Regionalization

Consolidation is the joining of two or more water systems, which commonly includes a smaller system being absorbed into a larger water system. When a physical consolidation occurs, one water system is dissolved, and its customers are provided service by another existing water system. If the project can be expanded to include multiple water systems in the area, the State Water Board can support a Regionalization project that benefits a broader customer base. Managerial consolidation is when a small water system becomes part of a larger water system for all managerial purposes but continues to use their original water supply and distribution system. More organization and connectivity in the water system landscape creates a more sustainable and resilient water supply. Some hypothetical examples include:

  • Physical consolidation: “Golden Villas” is a senior mobile home park with its own water system and the owner decides it no longer wishes to be responsible for providing drinking water. The nearest city can begin providing water to the mobile home park through a physical pipe interconnection. The mobile home park can dissolve its water system and no longer be responsible for providing water. In this case, we call the city the "receiving" water system and the mobile home park the "subsumed" water system.
  • Regionalization: The neighbors of Golden Villas include other mobile home parks, some neighborhoods with their own small water systems, and a K-12 school with an unreliable well. Community organizations and local elected officials can work with the State Water Board to develop a Regionalization project that will leverage economies of scale to create a regional sustainable drinking water solution.
  • Managerial: “Lakefront Estates” is a mutual water system with an aging, all-volunteer staff. The staff no longer want to be responsible for the water system and there are no community members willing to take over. The water system may be too far from the nearest large water system to make it cost-effective to physically consolidate, but the larger water system can legally take over the water system functions such as regulatory reporting, billing, operations, etc. The smaller water system dissolves and is no longer legally responsible for water service.

FAQ about Partnerships

What about loss of local control of our water?

Capital investments for water utility service are more than twice the service cost of electricity or natural gas, but for customers, water bills are typically one of the lowest utilities. Well-meaning small systems tend to charge low water rates at the expense of adequately planning and saving for future needs. Without accounting for the true cost of water delivery, they will have insufficient funds to replace infrastructure or install necessary treatment. For systems concerned with loss of autonomy, local resource sharing and building regional relationships before working toward consolidation or regionalization may be a more acceptable approach.

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to drill our own well?

Public water system applicants often expect the cost of a well, distribution system, and occasional monitoring to be a one-time obstacle to establishing a system, but the amount of work and financial commitment to create a sustainable public water system cannot be understated. The Water Boards has created a Public Water System Summary flyer to provide a quick reference of what is required to be a public water system, and selected Drinking Water Statutes are available for reference on our website.

What is Mandatory Consolidation?

When public water systems are failing to meet water quality standards and/or have inadequate water supply, the State Water Board may order mandatory consolidations, in accordance with Sections 116680-116686 of the California Health and Safety Code. The State Water Board may order mandatory consolidations for systems that meet the following criteria:

  • System is classified as a Public Water System or State Small Water System; and
  • the system serves a disadvantaged community; and
  • the system consistently fails to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water

The State Water Board strongly supports voluntary participation in consolidation projects, and experience has shown that voluntary projects will provide the best outcomes and may be eligible for additional funding and/or Technical Assistance from the state.

Is consolidation just annexation?

In drinking water terminology, consolidation and annexation have different meanings. Consolidation is the joining of two public water systems, whereas annexation is a process where one water system’s boundaries are expanded to include nearby areas that don’t currently receive public services by a municipality (like water and sewer service, full-time police, and fire protection). Depending on the governance type of the water system, a formal annexation process may or may not be required for consolidation. The annexation process or government reorganization process is typically under the jurisdiction of each county's Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO). LAFCO has jurisdiction over the boundaries of counties, cities, and most special districts.

Consolidation Case Studies from Water Agencies