Historically, a hoogheemraadschap was an administrative body that covered a large region and held authority over lower waterschappen within its jurisdiction. These hoogheemraadschappen were responsible for protecting the land against the sea and/or for regulating the water level of the canals and lakes that the polders and waterschappen within the area pumped their excess water into. They were often created top-down by charter of the ruling Count of Holland, to ensure the common interests by means of centralization, and they were endowed with the right to make bylaws. The term hoogheemraadschap has later been used for large regional waterschappen in general. In present-day usage, the term has no legal meaning: the Waterschapswet, the Dutch law that regulates the waterschappen, only mentions waterschap. A hoogheemraadschap is now a waterschap that chooses to call itself hoogheemraadschap, either for historical reasons, when there was a pre-existing hoogheemraadschap that has formally merged with the lower waterschappen in its jurisdiction (such as the Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland ) or when it is a merger of waterschappen that has assumed this title for itself (Hoogheemraadschap De Stichtse Rijnlanden)
Both terms can refer to the region or to the administrative body itself. When referring to the administrative body, the English translation of waterschap and hoogheemraadschap is generally "water board" or "water control board". It can be referred to as the "district water board" or "district water control board". The region is generally referred to as the "water board district" or "water control board district".
The term "water board" may be confusing in the Dutch context, as water boards in other countries are often responsible for the supply of water to the public. A waterschap or hoogheemraadschap in the Netherlands is charged with the control and management of water, not the supply of water. It is more accurate to refer to these organisations as "water control boards" and "water control board districts".
Around 25 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level. Three main rivers run through this relatively small country. Historically there was a good deal of flooding from both the sea and from the rivers. It has always been in the common interest to keep the water out. The ever-present threat of loss of life and land requires short lines of communication between authority and action. Therefore local bodies were best suited to deal with the threat.
This method of dealing with water control emerged in 13th century as the unpredictable water system was tamed and the land drained for agriculture. The water boards were set up to maintain the integrity of the water defenses around the polders, maintain the waterways inside a polder and control the various water levels inside and outside the polder. This early form of local government led to high level of decentralisation and communal cooperation in the Netherlands. In the 16th century, wide-spread experience with decentralized government was a factor in the formation of the Dutch Republic. The function of the water boards has basically remained unchanged to this day. As such they are the oldest democratic institutions in the country.
Within its territory, a water board is responsible for:
Dutch water boards are not responsible for the supply of public water. They are not a utility.
Each water board has the authority to impose taxes. The central government contributes to this system by paying for the cost of constructing and maintaining the water barriers and the main waterways. The costs of water treatment are financed by a water pollution levy, which is based on the polluter pays principle.
Water bodies hold separate elections, levy taxes and function independently from other government bodies. The structure of the water boards varies, but they all have a general administrative body, an executive board and a chairperson. The general administrative body consists of people (the hoofdingelanden) representing the various categories of stakeholders: landholders, leaseholders, owners of buildings, companies and, since recently, all the residents as well. Importance and financial contribution are factors in determining how many representatives each category may delegate. Certain stakeholders (e.g. environmental organisations) may be given the power to appoint members. The general administrative body elects the executive board (of hoogheemraden, councilors) from among its members. The government appoints the chairperson (dijkgraaf, literally: "dike count") for a period of six years. The general administrative body is elected for a period of four years. Unlike municipal council elections, voters do not usually have to go to a polling station but they can vote by mail or even by telephone. (The water boards also wanted to offer voting by Internet, however, the Dutch government has determined that voting by Internet is not yet secure enough.)
Typically, a water board’s territory is made up of one or more polders or watersheds. The territory of a water board generally covers several municipalities and may even include areas in two or more provinces. In 2006, there were 27 water boards in the Netherlands.
The last two of these are managed by a regional grouping called Waterschapsbedrijf Limburg.
The Unie van Waterschappen (Association of Water Boards) promotes the interests of Dutch water boards at a national and international level. All 27 water boards are members of the Association. It is especially about the safeguarding of interests with regard to the Dutch government and parliament . The Unie van Waterschappen acts collaboratively with other appropriate bodies or institutions to pursue the Association's objectives including linking to Europe through with membership of the EUWMA, (European Union of Water Management Associations).