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A History of Special Districts

Although little is recorded on the earliest special districts, the history of these local government entities date back to the 18th century with the establishment of park districts and expanded to toll roads and irrigation districts in the 19th century. Special districts originated with the common purpose to provide a service that other government entities, such as cities and counties, are not providing.

One example of the transformative power of special districts can be found in California’s Central Valley. By passing the Wright Act in 1887, the California State Legislature empowered local leaders to source and deliver water for agriculture in the historically arid region. Local farmers formed the Turlock Irrigation District that same year and others soon followed suit. Formation of irrigation districts would contribute to the growth of the nation’s single-largest source of food products.

Communities across the land turned to forming special districts to address a variety of urgent needs. As the country’s population boomed in the post-World War II era, it became obvious that growing communities needed more hospitals and health care, water and wastewater, and other community enrichment services. Communities formed special districts to meet these needs.

According to U.S. Census figures, today more than 30,000 special districts provide a wide array of specialized services to millions of Americans. Some special districts are large; many are very small, all serving diverse urban, suburban, rural and agricultural regions of the country - even within incorporated areas – providing communities with critical services cities and counties are not otherwise providing.

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