Interlocal interactions, municipal boundaries, and water and wastewater expenditure in city-regions

Blog post by Agustin Leon-Moreta and Vittoria Totaro

22 Feb 2022, 9:15 a.m.
Agustin Leon-Moreta and Vittoria Totaro



Urban regions derive social and economic benefits when local governments deliver functional water and wastewater services. Cities in the US are the primary level of government delegated with the responsibility for water and wastewater systems. Consequently, whether city governments sustain or increase funding resources for water and wastewater services is a critical decision that will affect urban communities that depend on these services.

Water supply and wastewater are interrelated functions that city governments both consider when they allocate their limited resources. Water supply services focus on the quality of drinking water whereas wastewater services are designed to reclaim or dispose of used water safely. Water supply determines the scope of wastewater services that a city government should offer. Cities are institutionally responsible for the effective and equitable provision of water and wastewater services; however, this provision in principle depends on municipal capacities. While some cities commit substantial resources to funding water and wastewater services, others commit limited resources.

A more extensive body of empirical research is needed to inform both knowledge and policy discussion. In cities and across states, water and wastewater systems have become an issue of extensive policy conversation because of the difficulties that several city governments have faced to support these systems. And there is growing scholarly interest in the impact of jurisdictional boundaries and interlocal cooperation on their provision of urban services.

Water and wastewater problems have been of concern in recent years from Flint to Newark and other cities. These water crises are examples of the persistent challenge that local governments face in ensuring quality water services to all residents. These cities have faced resource constraints, and their inability to ensure water services reflects the impact of local and regional conditions.

Reflecting on the growing importance of these issues, and the limited empirical evidence available, we set out in this recent paper to consider what factors explain the municipal allocation of resources to water and wastewater programs? The paper connects theories of boundary change with systems of interlocal cooperation that support water and wastewater functions in urban regions. We draw on the literature on local governments’ interaction within urban regions; their different scope of services may result from revenue disparities between cities. Situated in that context, we explore cities’ cooperative systems for delivering water and wastewater services. We also draw from boundary change theory and its implications.

Perhaps the most important contribution made by this new paper is our emphasising of service provision in developing cities. Specifically, we explore water and wastewater programs as a result of new cities’ incorporation. Developing cities confront service delivery challenges that merit specific attention as they differ from issues faced by more established cities.

In the paper we report pooled cross-municipal data from 2002 to 2017 to examine changes in municipal water and wastewater expenditures. Our central finding is that water and wastewater programs vary considerably across city-regions. Additional findings are that the municipal provision of these programs appears to be correlated with the interaction between adjacent cities and changes to their jurisdictional boundaries. City governments may adapt their allocation of resources to water and wastewater functions according to the regional conditions surrounding city jurisdictions.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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