DC Water chief turns on the public diplomacy to make tap hip again
By Annys Shin,
You may not think of George Hawkins when you flush your toilet, but Hawkins wants you to know that when you do, he’s thinking of you.
Hawkins is the endlessly upbeat head of DC Water, the agency that many District residents still associate with leaded tap water, ineffectual fire hydrants and chronic water main breaks. For 18 months, Hawkins, 50, has been trying to persuade the District’s residents to forget all that and get excited about the future. He wants to clean up the Anacostia River and cover the city with “green” roofs. And he wants D.C. residents to pay more to do it. A lot more — without getting angry.
To that end, he has shelved the bureaucratic sounding “D.C. Water and Sewer Authority” for the more Evian-worthy name “DC Water Is Life.” He has footage of himself on YouTube doing the robot at an office holiday party. And he’s trekked to every ward in the city, handing out bags of fresh popcorn and free water bottles while he regales his audience with the wonders of sewage treatment and the complexities of water distribution. He wants to make tap water hip. Lucky for him that in the world of water utilities, “it’s not hard to be a rock star,” as DC Water spokesman Alan Heymann put it.
Hawkins has become an evangelist about the need to invest in aging urban infrastructure. Outside the District, the former EPA lawyer has a reputation as a kind of Lorax for broken water mains. Inside the District, the charm offensive is not always as effective. At a meeting in Ward 8, the tirades started almost as soon as Hawkins was done talking.
“Why is it every time I call, I get the runaround?”
“How can I have a $400 water bill?”
“This problem is not particular to her. It’s happening all over Southeast.”
Hawkins didn’t argue, partly because that’s not his style. As a Harvard law student in the 1980s, he was more interested in bartending than in making law review and to this day brags about his skill at defusing drunken brawls. (“Pretty girls don’t like bar fights,” he explained.) Although he moved here from New Jersey in 2007, he is astute enough to correct himself at a Ward 8 town hall, while referring to the ward’s ever-popular council member. “Council member — Mayor Barry, I mean,” he said. “I, for one, still like to call him mayor.”
Those political skills are part of why he was hired to undo the public-relations mistakes made by WASA executives during the lead scandal. His job is to be more forthright and empathic. So when confronted by customers, he often takes a conciliatory approach.
“Sounds like something is amiss,” he tells the woman with the $400 bill. “Sorry that happened.”
If WASA executives had only done the same a decade ago, the utility’s critics think D.C. children might have been spared harmful lead exposure.
T he lead crisis
WASA first learned of high lead levels in drinking water in 2001 but kept it from authorities. Long-term exposure to lead can harm the nervous system and lead to IQ deficits. As late as February 2009, WASA’s general manager at the time, Jerry Johnson, was still giving out confusing advice, saying at a D.C. Council hearing that he would allow a child to drink from the tap but wouldn’t necessarily direct the public to do the same. There was talk among D.C. leaders of having the city seize control.
In October 2009, after a nationwide search, WASA’s board replaced Johnson with Hawkins, who was then director of the D.C. Department of Environment and a WASA board member. Hawkins was an unusual choice — he had no experience overseeing a municipal water and sewer system. (He may also be the only water utility manager who was once part of a DJing and break-dancing crew — Legal Funk.) But after the lead crisis, technical know-how had become a lower priority than the touchy-feely variety.
By the time Hawkins took over, Johnson had successfully overhauled WASA’s operations and made improvements, including replacing paper billing with electronic and installing digital meters that can track individual water usage in real time. The problem was public perception.
“DC WASA had lost confidence with the public,” said William Walker, chairman of the board of directors. “We needed to be informing the public about how we treat the water, to get with the advocate community and the educational community.”
Hawkins focused on reintroducing WASA with a new name and logo, at a cost of $160,000. He cloned a water drop costume that had languished at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and named her Wendy. She now shares a cubicle not far from his office at Blue Plains and has her own You Tube channel.
The utility’s true mascot, though, is Hawkins. His name frequently appears right along with the DC Water logo. His mug adorns handouts and signs. Step out of an elevator at Blue Plains and you’ll see him beaming from a poster above a recycling bin. He even has a costume of sorts: a DC Water-issued jacket and shirt with his name sewn on the front. (When he teaches at Princeton on Mondays, he trades in the blue-collar look for a wool blazer with elbow patches.) Dressing daily as if he is paid to clear sewer drains, instead of $230,000 a year to sit at a desk or in meetings, is his way of showing his employees that he’s one of them.
Acting more like a political figure than a water utility executive has its drawbacks. Some of the unions that represent DC Water employees have soured on Hawkins. “When he came on, we were looking forward to working with him,” said Dwight Bowman, vice president of AFGE’s 14th District. “He presented himself extremely well.”
But his plans to reorganize water and sewer crews have not gone over well. The union raised concerns about potential health implications, which Hawkins and Walker dismissed. Hawkins was accused of spending ratepayer money on a lavish trip to California and having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate — accusations Hawkins said are baseless and were not investigated. It’s the kind of mudslinging that takes place in a close election. The difference is, “I run the water utility,” Hawkins said.
Politicians also have the luxury of being able to decry higher taxes. Hawkins, by contrast, is trying to get his customers comfortable with the idea of paying more.
Since 2009, the average monthly bill has gone up 50 percent, to $66. The bulk of that increase comes from a special fee that between 2011 and 2019 is expected to increase from $3.45 to nearly $30. “The average single-family bill will be like a cable bill today with HBO,” Hawkins said.
The money raised will cover the cost of building a series of massive tunnels that will capture polluted storm-water runoff and keep it from flowing into the Chesapeake watershed. DC Water has little choice in the matter: The federal government has mandated the project. What makes it less palatable is that much of the runoff originates elsewhere, but the cost of the tunnels will largely be born by D.C. residents. And the project leaves DC Water with less money to replace water and sewer pipes whose average age is 77. At the current rate, pipes are replaced once every 100 years.
The WASA board, which votes on rate increases, has been known to lower rates in the past in response to public protest.
Residents are only now starting to feel the pinch, and they’re not happy about it.
“I’m a bit put out that while Hawkins is proposing these outrageous increases in rates for residents, he has spent an extraordinary amount on a PR campaign,” said Mary C. Williams, a former Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member. “So, are we supposed to suddenly trust WASA now that it is known as DC Water?”
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the committee that oversees DC Water, has also started to hear from his constituents, especially older residents on fixed incomes. DC Water pays for the projects with money raised from bonds, and residents are on the hook for repaying those bonds, even after the tunnels are finished.
“Will the charge go down? As it currently is planned, it doesn’t look like it in my lifetime,” Wells said.
Behind the scenes, Hawkins has been scrambling to find some way to make the rate increases smaller, including capturing methane from the waste it treats to produce energy and sell it and setting up a consulting arm. He has also proposed establishing water filling stations throughout the city, where people can pay to fill a bottle with chilled water for a fraction of what bottled water costs.
As he searches for other options, he will keep trying to win over customers.
“If we don’t get the support of the public we serve, we don’t get support for the rate increase,” he said. “We have to be honest about what the needs are.”