D.C. Water and Sewer Authority general manager
Walk into George Hawkins’ office at D.C. Water and Sewer Authority headquarters and you’re going to hear about the curtains. The old curtains.
“There were these big, heavy blinds,” says Hawkins, general manager since September. “I opened them up, and it was pretty dirty back there. Apparently the blinds hadn’t been opened very much before.”
Those aren’t the only window treatments he’s disturbed down at Blue Plains. “He literally walked into our board meeting room and opened up the curtains,” says William Walker, the board’s president. “They were always closed for board meetings. Everyone comes in this nice big hall, all these big important local and regional leaders. George walked in and said, ‘Open up the curtains, let’s let some sunlight in here.’”
It’s metaphor, make no mistake about it. Just as Pope John XXIII famously tore open the Vatican drapes, so has Hawkins brought energy to a sluggish, mistrusted institution.
Most famously, in 2004, the Washington Post revealed alarmingly high levels of waterborne lead in some D.C. homes, setting off a citywide frenzy over the safety of municipal drinking water—a frenzy amplified by WASA’s inability to share information or explain the scope of the problem in a timely or convincing manner.
Formerly director of the District’s environment department, Hawkins was hired as WASA’s chief exec in September, taking over from veteran Jerry Johnson—an ace engineer who over 15 years turned a failing operation into a model public utility, but badly fumbled the ongoing response to the lead crisis.
So when it came time to pick Johnson’s replacement, Walker insisted that board members look for credentials beyond an engineering degree. “We needed someone who can think strategically, who understands the significant environmental issues that WASA faces,” he says. Hawkins, 49, was their guy: “Who better than a general manager who has a law degree from Harvard, who has worked for the EPA, and has run the [city environment department]?”
Since then, Hawkins has won over his board, water-quality and environmental advocates, and even a labor boss. “It’s a breath of fresh air,” says James Ivey, president of the WASA employees’ union. “He’s youthful, he’s exuberant.…The long and short of it is, he’s taken on a posture of inclusiveness.” It hasn’t gone without notice: Hawkins was recently featured in a New York Times piece on the challenges facing urban water systems.
Those challenges are myriad. Despite the fact that the vast Blue Plains treatment plant spews out some of the cleanest water of any plant in the country, the agency has been ordered by federal authorities to make it even cleaner. That means WASA spends about three-quarters of its capital budget on wastewater, leaving only about $45 million a year to replace old water pipes. A spate of recent water-main breaks only highlights the fact that, at current rates, WASA can replace just .3 percent of the system’s water pipes every year—some of them already 150 years old.
So part of the solution, Hawkins says, is to charge more for water. And that’s a tough sell to citizens who consider turning on a tap to be more of a right than a commodity. And he’s already proposed hiking water rates, to the tune of $8 to $12 per month more for the average household.
“This is my hope, that they’d say, ‘Ten? I’m giving ’em $20 more, because I like what they do so much!’” says Hawkins. “I know it’s not going happen, but we’ve got to go out to the public with that goal in mind.”
Outreach is a big deal to Hawkins—convincing the public that city water is worth paying more for. And selling that idea to the public is intimately tied in with Hawkins’ enviro roots, as an environmental lawyer, activist, and regulator. Water supply and treatment is “the original green job,” he’s fond of saying, and it’s a job description he’d like to expand, whether by building a power generator at Blue Plains that runs on sewage sludge or installing “green roofs” and rain gardens for WASA customers or simply passing out free tap water at public events.
Hawkins might be devoted to raising WASA’s visibility in the community, but he’s donned a low profile in his own workplace. If you saw him walking around the Blue Plains treatment plant, you might mistake him for the janitor. Hawkins has taken to wearing a standard-issue WASA work uniform—same ones the agency’s frontline workers wear—complete with a “George” nametag on the chest.
His embrace of the blue-collar attire, and a blue-collar attitude, has won him plaudits from both the union hall and the boardroom. “The rank-and-file are very impressed that he wants to be a part of them. He hasn’t separated himself,” says Ivey, the union boss. “And he labors very hard to show that.”
Walker, a financier, recalled a time Hawkins visited his Bethesda office wearing the garb: “He’s wearing his white D.C. WASA shirt, and he’s wearing his D.C. WASA parka with a D.C. WASA patch on it.…And I’m sort of sitting there going, you could have come in casual clothes or a coat and tie. He was like, ‘This is what I wear. This is my uniform.’ He’s living it. He’s living the role. There’s no show here.”