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Inside DC Water

What!? A Charismatic, Public Drinking Water Manager

by RALPH NADER

In contrast to years of underinvestment in America’s public drinking water works that has invited takeover drives by large corporations hustling city governments, George S. Hawkins, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, or DC Water for short, is leading a comeback in the nation’s Capital. A career environmentalist, Mr. Hawkins, in just nineteen months on the job, has brought immense energy, vision, and ambitious, overdue plans to the forefront. Consequently, people are calling this public servant the rarest of names – a charismatic leader.

Start with his outreach programs that far exceed the level of citizen utilization, thus far. For starters, he reports in print or online to every residence what is going on with their water – from the intake of water from the Potomac, through the Washington Aqueduct, until it reaches the home or business faucets.

Here is what Mr. Hawkins means when he speaks of “community outreach:”

1. Conservation Program DC – a rolling water conservation display for large community events (over 100 people) that shows ways to save water in your kitchen sink, shower, toilet, etc.

2. For a gathering of 10 or more, there is a free DC Water Speakers Bureau with knowledgeable lecturers on various aspects of the water and sewer systems from the processing facilities to the neighborhoods. Sometimes the speaker is George Hawkins.

3. There are environmental education programs for grades K-8 related to drinking water, water pollution, and wastewater treatment. These are available for any grade level, class size or time schedule. Most students in our country haven’t the faintest idea of where their water comes from or where it is processed for distribution, much less their rights under the 1974 federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

I worked intensively to get that law enacted by Congress and in the process was appalled at the low status and support given public drinking water officials then in city after city, especially in Cleveland and New Orleans.

Mr. Hawkins was interested in my suggestion that testing protocols for water contaminates be prepared for high school students taking lab courses in physics and chemistry. Applied around the country high school students could be regularly testing their local drinking water and keeping officials on constant alert and water-drinkers informed.

DC Water has had children’s water festivals to teach the value of water. There are 200 DC locations for free water bottle refills on the go. It runs a Mobile Command Center to be used during extreme weather events and complex water main breaks and sewer repairs. It staffs a “National Drinking Water Week,” the “World Water Monitoring Day”, the “Earth Day Celebration in April” and is launching its very ambitious “green infrastructure challenge.

The green infrastructure challenge invites people and firms to enter a contest to design innovative green practices to absorb rain water before it floods into the combined sewer system. What Mr. Hawkins would really like to see is the green approach become so widespread as to replace the presently planned, traffic-choking building of two giant storage tunnels to manage storm water runoff before it goes into the Potomac, Rock Creek and other waterways heading for Chesapeake Bay.

DC Water is looking for pilot projects to determine if there are enough permeable surfaces to meet the burdens of large amounts of rain overflowing from sewers and going into basements, streets or rivers.

DC Water is responsible for monitoring water quality in the distribution system. About ten years ago, long before Hawkins arrived, the Department was exposed by the Washington Post for allowing impermissible levels of lead in drinking water. This scandal led to the Department offering free filters to D.C. residents with lead water services lines and free testing for any resident. It also sparked an increase in bottled water purchases by people who could afford the product.

In an interview with Mr. Hawkins, he said that public drinking water systems get publicity only when things go wrong. He was determined to restore confidence in high quality tap water, rebuild the system and make good news the norm. Last year DC Water, which maintains 1,300 miles of pipe for 600,000 people, conducted more than 41,000 tests on water samples from hydrants, commercial buildings and household taps.

Many jurisdictions and Departments in the greater D.C. area will have to agree about which green paths to take and who is going to pay what share of the rate increases. DC’s antiquated water mains and sewers will cost at least $2.6 billion to repair or replace. “We foresee rate increases coming almost every year as far as we can see in the future”, Hawkins says publically. “So over 10 years, you’re seeing average bills double,” he forthrightly predicts.

But if the preliminary partnership agreement that DC Water negotiated with the EPA to explore rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavements as an alternative to the current expensive big-tunnel approach, can show the way to a green future, provide D.C. area jobs and persuade ratepayers that this groundbreaking path is in the nation’s future, Mr. Hawkins may find himself one day moving to head the federal EPA. That is just how high a hurdle he has set for himself and his energetic colleagues.

In the meantime, “fill ‘er up” with your reusable water bottle all over D.C.. It’s your water. And don’t hesitate to complain, if necessary, about the water or if your monthly bill is not accurate nor understandable. For DC Water can only do better when they hear from you.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.