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.
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.