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Equity and Capacity for Water and Sanitation Services

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Agustin Leon-Moreta and Silvia Saenz-Montenegro
January 26, 2020

Equity in the provision and access to drinking water and sanitation is an enduring challenge of modern life across societies. While the public good benefits of drinking water and sanitation services are well understood, infrastructure for these services needs improvement in many cities around the world, including those of developed nations. Even in the United States, the water crisis in Flint showed that access to drinking water cannot be taken for granted. How can local governments find the necessary resources for those vital infrastructures while ensuring equity in their accessibility? In this article, we discuss essential institutional mechanisms that can be useful for water and sanitation improvements, focusing primarily on American cities.

Our focus here is primarily on existing gaps in service capacities and thus the potential for greater equity in water and sanitation services. Research suggests that municipal governments play a central role, but multiple levels of government are ultimately involved in the provision of water and sanitation services.

First of all, we need to consider the provision of water supply and sanitation services in the context of American federalism. The provision of these services is influenced by decisions made at both local and higher levels of government. For example, federal and state standards regulate the quality of water and sanitation services that local governments are expected to deliver. Second, local governments depend much on federal and state aid for water and sanitation infrastructure. In fact, one of the lessons of the Flint crisis was the importance of federal and state support to financially distressed municipalities.

Another important factor is the organization of municipal agencies that deliver water and sanitation services in a metropolitan area. In particular, special districts and county agencies may deliver these services in lieu of municipalities agencies. Although municipal agencies often have a primary role in water and sanitation services, special districts and county agencies also serve an important role in providing those services, substituting for municipal agencies in some regions.

Some municipalities support water sanitation services, but they delegate the production of those services to other agencies or districts. If municipalities are fragmented in multiple small jurisdictions, then relying on a regional water district can be more economical for municipalities rather than providing water and sanitation services by themselves. By contrast, when a municipality is a large government, such as a central city, that serves an extensive geographic area, that government will more likely have the organizational capacity to support water and sanitation services.

It is important to understand the larger ecosystem of water resources in municipalities. Some basic factors include the access to sources of water, such as surface or groundwater sources. Also important is the extent of precipitation in a region, especially for rural municipalities, as farming can benefit from precipitation that mitigates the need for municipal supply of water. In urban areas, the age and condition of the water and sanitation infrastructure are also factors affecting the cities’ need for infrastructure improvements. As different from other types of infrastructure, water and sanitation infrastructure is typically underground infrastructure. This particularly creates challenges for the maintenance, repair or replacement of that infrastructure.

The states, of course, affect the local provision of water and sanitation services in important ways. In particular, the states delegate or authorize local governments to provide water and sanitation programs. Generally, municipalities have the legal and policy authority to deliver water and sanitation. However, the use of water districts may require special legislation to enable the provision of water and sanitation services via those districts. While there can be multiple incentives to rely on water districts for delivering services, the state plays a fundamental role by allowing (or not) the formation of such districts. In terms of fiscal capacity, for example, water districts may be incorporated with broader fiscal capacity than municipal agencies, and this might be another reason why water districts are used in some regions.

The states matter in terms of providing financial support to municipalities. Another important intergovernmental influence is the regulations or mandates that the federal and state governments impose on municipal agencies. There are federal and state regulations on drinking water quality, and such regulations can be difficult or costly to implement. States often differ in terms of their regulation of municipal agencies as well as on their financial assistance to municipal agencies.

The importance of water and sanitation services for quality of life cannot be overemphasized. We highlight here the distinct intergovernmental factors that affect the provision of water and sanitation services in municipalities. The intergovernmental system of the states is essential to understand how local governments provide water and sanitation services in their communities. If the role of municipalities is properly understood and supported, municipalities will be able to deliver water, sanitation and other local public goods in an equitable and cost-effective manner.


Authors:

Agustin Leon-Moreta is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico School of Public Administration. He received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy from the Askew School at Florida State University. His research has appeared in Public Administration Review, the American Review of Public Administration, Urban Studies, State and Local Government Review, and Public Administration Quarterly.

Silvia Saenz-Montenegro has over fifteen years of working experience in the private sector. In May 2017, Silvia received a Master’s degree in Organization, Information and Learning Sciences from the University of New Mexico. She is interested in evaluating how to use distance learning in the workplace effectively. Her research interests additionally include barriers to distance training and distance education.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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