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SPECIAL DISTRICTS: Their history in California

Special districts are local governmental entities created by a community’s residents, funded by those residents, and overseen by those residents, to provide specialized services and infrastructure; and

Today, just over 2,000 independent special districts provide millions of Californians with essential services, including services related to water, sanitation and water recycling, fire protection, electricity, parks and recreation, health care, open space, ports and harbors, flood protection, mosquito abatement, cemeteries, resource conservation, airports, transit, road maintenance, veterans’ facilities, and more.

Special districts first arose when San Joaquin Valley farmers needed a way to access their local water supply; so under the Wright Act of 1887, Turlock Irrigation District became California’s first special district and made it possible for local farmers to intensify and diversify agriculture in California’s central valley.

In the 20th century, special districts increased dramatically in both number and scope. During the periods of prosperity and population growth that followed both world wars, the demand for all types of public services increased, followed by the creation of many special districts to meet those needs.

In 1915, statutory authorization for mosquito abatement districts was enacted to combat the salt marsh mosquitoes around the San Francisco Bay and higher than average malaria cases in rural counties. Fire protection districts can trace their origins to a 1923 state law, and in 1931 the Legislature authorized recreation districts, the forerunners of today’s recreation and park districts.

Hospital districts arose in 1945 because of a statewide shortage of hospital beds. In 1994, the Legislature then expanded their breadth and renamed them health care districts in recognition of the diverse, modern needs of California’s communities and the importance of proactive, affordable health care beyond the walls of a hospital building.

Although originally created to provide individual services, in 1961 the Legislature authorized special districts to address multiple needs, when it provided for multipurpose, community services districts.

Special districts vary in size and scope and serve diverse communities throughout California, from small rural neighborhoods, such as the Pine Cove Water District in the San Jacinto Mountains of the County of Riverside, to large urban regions, such as the East Bay Municipal Utility District spanning much of the Counties of Alameda and Contra Costa in the Bay Area.

Local residents own special districts and govern them through locally elected or appointed boards. A series of sunshine laws ensure special districts remain transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, as these laws require open and public meetings, public access to records, regular audits, online posting of finances and compensation, and more.

To prevent overlapping services and to ensure that local agencies are operating effectively and efficiently to meet community needs, special districts are formed, reviewed, consolidated, or dissolved through a methodical local process that includes the oversight of a local agency formation commission and the consent of local voters.

Durham Irrigation District seeks to promote democratic institutions, community-based services, local control, and self-determination.