George Hawkins doesn’t need a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the hurdles he faced when he took the helm of DC Water in 2009.
He just needs his fist.
“This is what I felt was coming at us,” Hawkins said in his office at the utility’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in the District of Columbia. He balled up the fingers of one hand to deliver the symbolic punch that’s been part of his stump speech for the last eight years. “It was going to knock us down.”
The fingers of that metaphorical fist were all of the factors working against the regional water and sewer utility, which needed to aggressively raise rates to fund a $2.6 billion project in order to comply with a federal order to curb its polluted overflows to Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Compliance entailed building miles of underground tunnels that would store polluted stormwater and sewage, which currently overflows into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers during heavy rains, until it can be treated at Blue Plains.
This mammoth undertaking needed to begin amid other costly updates to sewer lines that, in some pockets of the city, pre-dated the Civil War. And the funds to conduct the work needed to be collected from citizens that didn’t particularly like the utility. In the early 2000s, DC Water was not only known for slow service, but had delivered dangerous levels of lead in drinking water to thousands of District residents.
“I have to say I was totally panicked when I got the job,” said Hawkins, 57, who will retire from his position as DC Water’s CEO and general manager at the end of the year. “I thought, ‘Can we really do this?’”
Hawkins has since led the organization toward innovative solutions — and set an example for the water industry — by rethinking the way that DC Water portrays, pays for and powers its core services.
In the process, he recast an industrial facility that has long been the Bay’s largest single source of pollution into an organization that works with regulators to clean the rivers.
“DC Water has become a leader in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac,” said Jon Capacasa, who regulated and negotiated with the utility as the former mid-Atlantic regional water protection director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s just incredible to have the largest point source in the watershed leading the way rather than fighting the inevitable. [Hawkins] set the tone for other sectors in the region that this job must get done, and the sooner we get there, the better.”
Capacasa and Hawkins had worked together previously, when Hawkins directed what is now the District Department of Energy and Environment. The two had collaborated on incorporating “green infrastructure” projects such as rain gardens, water-filtering “bioswales” and rain-absorbing green roofs as measurable methods for reducing the District’s polluted stormwater runoff. In doing so, they established a model for other cities.
It was no surprise when Hawkins wanted to take similar steps at DC Water. From the day he interviewed for the CEO position, Hawkins said he intended to renegotiate the utility’s 2005 consent decree with the EPA — which laid out how the utility would painstakingly reduce pollution over time — to make green infrastructure part of the plan.
Hawkins, a Harvard-educated lawyer who had at one time worked on finding innovative approaches to reduce pollution while at the EPA’s Northeast regional office, argued that a sharp course change would allow the utility to meet its regulatory requirements while providing cost savings and additional benefits to ratepayers.
“My sense of it is that I told them things they were ready to hear,” Hawkins said of DC Water’s board, which hired him. At water utilities, “the conventional wisdom was to comply with orders, raise rates and less news is better. In that case, having not worked for a utility worked in my favor.”
In 2015, even as the first phases of the tunnel-building project had begun, the EPA and DC Water agreed to a rewritten consent decree that allowed for water-absorbing green infrastructure projects to replace one of the three planned tunnels. Hawkins convinced the EPA that the new approach would decrease the amount of polluted runoff coming off the landscape to reduce the need for collecting and storing it.
“Any time you can reopen a consent decree and do something with multiple benefits to the city, that’s setting a precedent that others can follow,” said Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Phillip Musegaas, vice president of programs and litigation at the Potomac Riverkeeper Network — which has advocated at times for the EPA to require more of DC Water — said only time will tell how much green infrastructure improves water quality in the Potomac River, though he’s hopeful it will.
“Over the two years I’ve been working in this region, I’ve been very impressed with what a great messenger to the public [Hawkins] is on DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project,” Musegaas wrote in an email. “He’s the best regulatory ambassador I’ve ever seen, evangelizing to the public about why investing in water infrastructure is important and will improve their city.”
Now that the river is cleaner and more people are recreating in or near it, Musegaas said he would like to see DC Water improve its system for notifying residents when sewage has overflowed into the waters after heavy rains. A DC Water official said the organization would be open to suggestions.
With the world’s largest advanced wastewater treatment plant, DC Water continued to push the envelope under Hawkins’ leadership. Blue Plains receives close to 300 million gallons of wastewater a day — enough to fill a football stadium — from the District of Columbia and some of Virginia’s and Maryland’s most populous counties.
The facility has garnered international attention because of its size, but, under Hawkins, it developed a reputation for adapting the latest technology to comply with — and, at times, exceed — regulatory requirements.
Its enhanced nitrogen removal system, constructed as part of a $3.8-billion capital improvement program, is also the largest of its kind in the world. Not only was the plant already outperforming Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals for nitrogen removal from wastewater, but the new technology also lets Blue Plains reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Under Hawkins, DC Water has shifted its approach to using the nutrients removed from sewage during the treatment process, treating them now as “resources” rather than waste. While Blue Plains has been feeding some of its waste to methane digesters since it began operating in the 1930s, the gas extracted by the digesters now powers turbines that generate one-third of the plant’s electricity.
Blue Plains also has begun marketing its treated, sterilized sewage sludge or “biosolids” as a soil amendment for gardeners.
Just as important as Hawkins’ actions, Krantz said, “was his capacity to communicate those changes with clarity and passion. I think it’s that combination that makes George unique in our sector.”
When he wasn’t speaking on radio shows or presenting at conferences, Hawkins oversaw a massive rebranding effort that transformed DC Water from a “faceless” agency with a confusing logo — he was once mistaken as a Department of Corrections employee — to “an environmental organization” working to clean up rather than pollute the Potomac River. Hawkins said he first gleaned that attitude from DC Water’s 1,100 workers, who shared with him a sense of pride — and a uniform.
In lieu of a suit, Hawkins wears a white version of the same collared shirt as the workers — with his name sewn onto one patch and the agency’s logo on another. It has become a hallmark of his unconventional leadership.
Though he’ll leave DC Water at the end of the year, Hawkins won’t be leaving the water industry. Along with remaining on several boards of directors, including a presidential infrastructure advisory committee, Hawkins plans to become a consultant — he’s still putting three of his five children through college — and write a book about how the impossible become possible at DC Water.
The working title is Moonshot.