WASA Board Taps D.C. Environmental Chief George Hawkins to Run Sagging Agency

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

George Hawkins, the respected head of the D.C. Department of the Environment and a former official at the Environmental Protection Agency, was tapped Thursday to be general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

Hawkins, 49, will take over an agency trying to ease public concerns about water quality and an aging infrastructure that complicated efforts to fight a huge fire at Peggy Cooper Cafritz's mansion in Northwest Washington this summer.

William M. Walker, chairman of WASA's board of directors, said Hawkins will also help the agency tackle a host of environmental issues, including determining the steps needed to comply with looming federal mandates that will affect water rates.

Hawkins, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has been Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's point person on environmental issues since shortly after he took office in 2007.

After a nationwide search, the WASA board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to hire Hawkins.

At a news conference announcing the hire, Fenty (D) called Hawkins a "quintessential manager" who will bring "outside-the-box thinking" to WASA, which has an annual operating budget of $360 million.

"He will challenge the status quo and set a new trend," Fenty said.

Walker said he hopes Hawkins will use his extensive contacts to help the agency improve operations while reaching out to residents and regulatory agencies.

Hawkins said his focus will be "all about the quality of the water and the quality of the environment." He will replace interim General Manager Avis Marie Russell next month. Russell took over in July after Jerry N. Johnson, who had headed the agency since 1997, was forced out.

Hawkins and the board are negotiating the terms of his contract, including his salary.

In April, WASA's board of directors voted to buy Johnson out of his $230,000 annual contract a year early in an effort to restore public confidence after it was reported that that were dangerous levels of lead in the District's tap water.

Walker said he is optimistic that Hawkins will be able to bolster the agency's ties to the community and other government agencies.

"I think George Hawkins brings with him the knowledge of the EPA, the knowledge of environmental issues and all that allows us to be focused on, and have someone hugely skilled at, all of those issues," Walker said.

WASA has been struggling to regain the public's trust since the revelations of elevated levels of lead in the water five years ago.

The agency suffered another setback when fire tore through Cafritz's multimillion-dollar mansion July 29 and a preliminary review by the city found that an aging water pipe dramatically slowed efforts to fight the fire.

Hawkins said he doesn't want to "prejudge" WASA's response to that incident but plans to "recruit and retain the best talent" and bring "excitement and innovation" to the agency.

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