Sacramento County Water, Explained: A Complex System of 27 Districts in Five Different Categories

Here’s how it all works.

PUBLISHED SEP 16, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Sacramento County’s water management system is a complicated melange of more than two dozen districts.

Sacramento County’s water management system is a complicated melange of more than two dozen districts.   Spunsel / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

A few months after California became a state and Sacramento—then a small gold-mining encampment where most homes were nothing but wooden shacks roofed by canvas—was incorporated as a city and a county, the region got its first water delivery system. As systems go, it was pretty limited. Constructed by one William P. Henry, the water plant consisted of a single, five-horsepower, piledriver-style engine near where I Street now meets the Sacramento River.

The engine powered a pump that, according to G. Walter Reed’s History of Sacramento County, drew water from the river and stored it in a small tank. From there, Henry sold his water by the gallon. His water business was successful enough that Henry soon had competition from a local entrepreneur who went by “Uncle Billy” Anderson. “Uncle Billy” set up his own water operation on Second Street, drawing water from Sutter Lake, a sizable body of water in downtown Sacramento that has since been lost to history and urban development, but is believed to have lain near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.

Sacramento Gets its First Public Water Works

Though Henry and Anderson each had enough business to weather the competition, they eventually joined forces along with a third businessman, A.A. Bennett, who owned the Old Metropolitan Baths and who therefore was already in a type of water business himself. The triumvirate set up a more powerful pump and larger storage tank just south of Henry’s original water operation. But even this upgraded enterprise couldn’t keep up with the fast-growing city’s demand for water.

In 1852, after rejecting a couple of proposals to create a new municipal water company, voters in Sacramento approved the idea of a new tax, of three-fourths of one cent, that would go to fund water works in the city. Over the next year, and with financial help from the city’s first water bond issue, Sacramento built its first municipal building, a combination City Hall and water works, with a tank capable of storing 200,000 gallons on the roof. The building stood on the site where the Sacramento History Museum, a replica of the original building, stands today.

The water works opened for business in 1854, and the first water superintendent was the same William P. Henry who started Sacramento’s water system with his five-horsepower pump three years earlier.

From One Water Works Then, to 27 Different Water Providers Now

Jump ahead to the present day, when Sacramento County’s water system is considerably more complex than in the heyday of Henry, “Uncle Billy,” and their partner the bathhouse mogul. Currently, the county of about 1.5 million people, eighth-largest in the state, is served by 27 different water providers, which are classified into five different categories.

The county’s largest water agency is also the only one to fall into the category of “dependent” water districts, according to a report by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees the creation of new districts and drawing up of their boundaries.

Founded in 1952 by an act of the state legislature, the Sacramento County Water Agency today services 58,000 homes in six regions—Laguna Vineyard, Mather-Sunrise, Arden Park-Sierra Oaks, Hood, Northgate, and Southwest Tract, which includes the cities of Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove.

The SCWA is classified as a “dependent” water district because, under a law passed by the state legislature in the early 1950s, the district has no governing body of its own. Instead, the county board of supervisors acts as the SCWA board of directors. One of their most important duties is to apportion the agency into zones, each with its own specific purposes and projects. The SCWA as of 2021 was divided into eight zones.

The most recently created zone, numbered Zone 50, was brought into existence in 2004 for the purpose of providing water to an area around Sacramento International Airport known as Metro Air Park Special Planning Area. The supervisors created the Metro Air Park area to “allow development of Metro Air Park as a high quality, multi-use, commercial and industrial business park.” Zone 50 supports that aim by providing water to the area purchased from the city of Sacramento, with water development fees collected in the zone.

The SCWA is also responsible for water conservation measures, flood control, and other water management issues, for which the supervisors in 1987 created Zone 13, covering the entire county except for four cities: Sacramento, Folsom, Galt and Isleton. 

The Four Different Categories of Independent Water Districts

The second category of water district in the county is the “independent,” or autonomous district. These are districts with their own govening boards that do not answer to the county, and are elected by voters within each district—or in the case of private water companies (which fall into the “autonomous” category) by the firm’s shareholders. Sacramento County is home to 13 such independent districts.

As if the tangled web of water management entities wasn’t head-spinning enough, the “independent district” category is itself subdivided into four categories: Community Services Districts, County Water Districts, cities, and private or mutual water companies. The cities of  Sacramento, Galt and Folsom provide their own water services to their residents. The San Juan and Rancho Murieta Community Services Districts provide their own areas with water, while there are four county water districts which despite the name of their category are independent of the county.

The Sacramento Suburban Water District, for example, is a county water district divided into five internal districts, each with its own elected member of the board of directors. Each director is elected to a four-year term. The water district has more than 94,000 voters. The district started life in 1954 as the Arcade Water District, merging in 2002 with the Northridge Water District to create the SSWD of today.

The county is also served by four private companies: Arden-Cordova Water Service, California-American Water Company, Elk Grove Water Service, and Fruitridge Vista Water Company. These companies, though owned by private shareholders, are answerable to the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Mutual Water Companies Serve 1.3 Million Californians

On the other hand, mutual water companies, small water services that serve about 1.3 million California residents across the state, are not subject to the same regulations. Sacramento County has three—Tokay Park Water Company, Orangevale Water Company and Natomas Central Mutual Water Company. The only regulation for mutual companies, which mainly serve rural areas without access to larger municipal and county water systems, comes from the California Department of Public Health, and the state’s Water, Health and Safety Codes.

Mutual companies, though ostensibly private, are subject like a public utility to open meeting and records laws. 

The multitude of water agencies in Sacramento County makes it a puzzle just to figure out which water surveyor serves your area. Fortunately, the county offers an online tool that makes it simple to determine the water district serving any specific address simply by typing in that address.

The Sacramento County water purveyor lookup feature may be accessed at this link.

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