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Special Districts

There are lots of them - and that's just for water!


A "special district" is a special purpose governmental entity which is formed for the performance of a single function or set of related functions. The general area of interest addressed here concerns water-related special districts. Through a ballot initiative in the early 20th Century, lawmakers passed a state Constitutional amendment declaring that our water resources "shall put water to the highest beneficial use possible and shall not waste water or use it unreasonably." This amendment forms the foundation for the existence of most of the special water districts.

Importantly, most special districts have the ability to levy taxes in order to carry out their mission, and some even have the ability to create indebtedness by the issuance of bonds and take over property through eminent domain. Each special district is typically overseen by a Board of Directors and only a minority of these boards contain elected directors responsible to the voters. Note that all of these special districts are subject to the Brown Act which requires their meetings to be open to the public. You should be aware of these special districts and hold them accountable.

When I first became interested in becoming a Director of the Orange County Water District, I was quite surprised at the number of different special districts in my immediate neighborhood and that a large number of them were water related. Water related special districts in and around Orange County Water District Division 6 include:

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

Usually referred to as "Metropolitan" this district is primarily responsible for importing and wholesaling of water for around 20 million residents of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The district imports water from the Colorado River and Northern California to supplement local supplies, and promotes increased water conservation, recycling, storage and other resource-management programs. Metropolitan distributes water to other special districts, including others in this list. Directors are appointed by client agencies.

Municipal Water District of Orange County

Often referred to as "MWDOC", this district is responsible for delivery of imported water to most of Orange County. MWDOC does not serve residential or business customers directly. Locally, MWDOC Division 4 incorporates the cities of Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, as well as parts of Rossmoor, Westminster and Costa Mesa. As a member agency of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, MWDOC is involved, along with other issues, in the California Water Fix project to bring water from Northern California to Orange County agencies. Directors are all elected officials.

Orange County Water District

Describing itself as "Orange County's Groundwater Authority", OCWD is responsible for the management of groundwater in most of Orange County. Northern Orange County has a sizeable aquifer from which cities pump water via municipal wells and the Orange County Water District (OCWD) is responsible for maintaining that aquifer. Much of the water going into the aquifer comes from the Santa Ana river basin but an increasingly important part comes from the Ground Water Replenishment System which, in conjunction with the Orange County Sanitation District, provides clean water derived from wastewater which would otherwise have found its way unused into the Pacific Ocean.

The primary source of groundwater in the basin is the Santa Ana River. When it rains, the Prado Dam captures rainwater. OCWD slowly releases water from behind the dam and diverts it into recharge basins in Anaheim where the water percolates into the aquifer. 15% of the groundwater basin is recharged with untreated water that OCWD purchases from Metropolitan at a lower cost than treated water. This water is naturally filtered as it percolates into the basin.

Part of OCWD's responsibility is the maintenance of a barrier to prevent salt water intrusion from the Pacific Ocean into the aquifer. Importantly, the OCWD Board of Directors is responsible for the decision as to whether the Poseidon Desalination plant and its associated cost impact on Orange County residents will go forward. OCWD Division 6 serves Huntington Beach and parts of Fountain Valley. Directors are either elected or appointed, depending on the division they represent.

West Orange County Water Board

As one of the 28 member agencies of MWDOC (did I mention that there are lots of special water districts and boards?), WOCWB provides the last layer of special district involvement in the chain of special districts delivering imported water to the cities of Seal Beach, Westminster, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach. The individual city's public works departments obtain water from WOCWB and deliver it to homes and businesses in their respective cities. Note: this board does not deal with water made available through wells - that's up to OCWD and the public works departments of the individual cities involved. The five members of its Board of Directors are all appointed by (and currently members of) their respective City Councils.

Mesa Water District

Just as the West Orange County Water Board provides water to its four cities, Mesa Water District provides water to the City of Costa Mesa and parts of Newport Beach and unincorporated portions of Orange County. Mesa Water District directors are directly elected and serve four year terms.

Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board

As a part of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Santa Ana division (one of 9 statewide) is concerned with water quality, which includes things like industrial discharge and groundwater pollution. This division has responsibility for water quality in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. In particular, this board's recent action items have included the remediation effort at the former Aeronutronic Ford facility on Ford Road in Newport Beach, where industrial solvents have been found to have formed a pollution plume which could eventually affect the aquifer from which OCWD controls the pumping of groundwater. Additionally, this board is involved with the proposed Poseidon desalination plant in that it must approve the procedures involving the effluent from the plant of the concentrated brine remaining after desalination has occurred. All board members are appointed.

Orange County Sanitation District

The Orange County Sanitation District has as its responsibility the collection, treatment and recycling of waste water. OCSD has two plants, one in Fountain Valley and one in Huntington Beach, both of which are next to the Santa Ana river. These plants take in raw sewage and process it in order to provide clean water to OCWD for the operation of the Ground Water Replenishment System. This provides another example of special districts working together as the effluent from OCSD is also subject to supervision by the Santa Ana Regional Water Control Board. See the discussion on the Ground Water Replenishment System for details on this very interesting aspect of our local water management infrastructure. All members of the board are appointed by the city councils of the constituent cities.

And So Forth

This is not meant to be a complete list of all the local water districts, but just so you know, the list includes:

  • El Toro Water District
  • Irvine Ranch Water District
  • Moulton Niguel Water District
  • Serrano Water District
  • South Coast Water District
  • South Orange County Water Authority
  • Yorba Linda Water District

If I've left out your favorite special water district, drop me a line and I'll take a look!


Elliott for OC Water District Director 2020
FPPC # 1429222