By Emily Simonson, Director of Strategic Initiatives, US Water Alliance

February 22, 2022

Conversations about utility cooperation models—like partnerships, regionalization, consolidation—picked up significantly in the Summer of 2020. At the height of pandemic restrictions, smaller utilities had a harder time managing protracted revenue shortfalls, backfilling for essential workers who fell ill, and implementing emergency measures. Yet cooperation models are not the only solutions available, and when not community-driven, they can have serious negative externalities concerning utility governance, affordability, and water democracy.
Around this time, I wrote a piece calling for a principled approach to post-pandemic utility consolidation. The US Water Alliance then made principled utility partnerships and consolidation one of the key components of a new initiative on how the water sector could recover stronger from COVID-19 by using utility cooperation models to close the water access gap in the United States and safeguard it for generations to come.
We worked with partners in California over several months to seriously examine the roadblocks and pain points they faced in using regionalization and consolidation to address serious water access and quality crises. The group explored four lines of inquiry with significant bearing on the pace and quality of utility partnership and consolidation work:
  1. How do we better and more intentionally engage impacted communities and local water boards?
  2. What additional community engagement and technical assistance capacity do we need to inform and accelerate community-driven consolidations?
  3. What further information and tools can we provide to catalyze more community-driven consolidations?
  4. What can the state and local jurisdictions do differently or improve upon?
Today, the Alliance is proud to release a report—Catalyzing Community-Driven Utility Consolidations and Partnerships—that captures the insights and solutions that surfaced. The report also lays out a roadmap for how others can advance principled, equity-centered conversations about utility cooperation models.
No single organization can tackle this subject or any other complex water challenge alone. While there is still a long road ahead to achieve universal, safe water access in California and beyond, the endeavors described in the report represent significant progress and one of the first frameworks applying equitable principles to real work on utility partnership, regionalization, or consolidation efforts.
We are so grateful to all those who have contributed to this work, especially the State Water Resources Control board for using many of the ideas to examine existing policies and processes, and to the Water Foundation for providing a space for the working group to continue making progress. Their ongoing efforts are paving the way for progress not only in California but across the entire nation.