Q & A with George Hawkins

Q: Tell us something about DC Water. What are you responsible for and how do you do it?

DC Water provides holistic water services for Washington, DC and surrounding counties in two states – Virginia and Maryland.  We treat water drawn from the Potomac River and distribute it through a vast network of pump stations, storage facilities, and 1300 miles of drinking water mains. We then take that water back, once it has been used, through an equally vast network of sewer mains and pump stations. It is treated at the world’s largest advanced wastewater treatment facility (what we call “enriched water”), then discharged back to its source – the Potomac River.  We also handle a large portion of the rainfall that enters Washington, DC conveying it through combined sewers to the same facility.  DC Water is a vast enterprise operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week – with an operating budget over $575 million a year, a capital budget of about $550 million, and a staff of 1,200, several thousand contractors, 600 fleet vehicles and facilities and operations throughout the City.

Q: The situation in Flint, MI has focused attention on the condition of the country’s water infrastructure and how mismanagement can directly affect public health. Is this an outlier or a cautionary tale? What lessons do water utilities need to learn?

The great surprise and fundamental disappointment of the tragic circumstances in Flint, Michigan is that the treatment approaches that could have easily been applied were not. The processes to reduce or eliminate the threat of erosion due to a change in the drinking water source are well known and relatively inexpensive.  The lesson is not only a reminder that the fundamentals of water treatment should never, ever be overlooked – but that lead service lines, which exist in many cities including Washington, DC, are a potential problem until they are eliminated.  Beyond the reminder of drinking water treatment basics, Flint has highlighted the need to a) clearly identify remaining sources of lead in the drinking water system, predominantly but not only service lines; b) use treatment techniques to reduce the risk from these known sources; and c) have a serious discussion, and hopefully resolution, of the many complicated issues surrounding elimination of those sources.

Q: The way we think about and manage environmental impacts have traditionally been made in silos – drinking water, sewage, groundwater, surface water, air, transportation, land use, and energy each treated in isolation. Is that a problem and why has it been changing?

Water is the ultimate substance that is interconnected with itself everywhere and connected to everything else as well.  Water supports every job and every living organism.  How we handle water in one field is intimately linked to the water we have for another area.  Water utilities that integrate their drinking water, sewer, and stormwater systems are best situated to take advantage of these connections.  Stormwater infiltrated or captured at a residence or in the public space can be re-used for multiple purposes including toilet flushing or irrigation.  Re-use of stormwater, or even some water used in the home, can reduce the need for potable water– an essential goal for communities facing drought.  Communities facing more intense storms can look to hold water at every building and lot leading to less water that floods the streets and pipes of the community.  Building on this integration, expanding the understanding of the vast amounts of water needed to produce power, or the huge amount of energy required to pump water – enables us to achieve savings on both sides of the equation.  All these steps are part of seeing water as a whole in concert with our behavior and the land on which we live, work and enjoy.

Q: What most excites you about your work at DC Water?

We deliver an essential service to one of the most important customer groups in the United States.  We can demonstrate new and creative approaches to managing this extraordinary resource. The pace of change in our industry is beginning to rival what has already transpired for communications, computers, transportation and so many other fields. Before us is a new generation of technologies and approaches and we already have a talented and committed workforce. This helps us draw the next generation of the best and brightest.  Almost anything is possible at DC Water, and I am excited every day to see what we can do.  There is never just talk or ideas at DC Water – our job is to make these ideas go and become real.  That is worth every second of our effort.

Q: Is there a water body from your youth that shaped you and your career?

I guess I am dating myself, but I remember hiking the “emerald necklace” of parks that circled Cleveland Height, the suburb of Cleveland where I grew up.  I remember hiking down the open sewer discharge pipes, with the small light at the end of the tube getting even fainter the farther we went – testing our courage, and probably our health.  I remember the froth of yellow and orange bubbles that collected along the streams and vividly remember looking at the finger painting that was the Cuyahoga River when I visited the Flats of Cleveland in 1969 – the same year the River burned for a week.  I had an instinctive love of the water as most everyone does, but was horrified at what we had done to it.  We have come so far – which is a breathtaking success – but now need another generation of change and ideas to generate the next level of improvement for our kids.