Columnist: Managing a Water System With Savvy — and Verve

February 13, 2012
by Neal Peirce

George Hawkins is a philosopher, strategist, environmentalist and the effervescent CEO of DC Water, the massive utility that services the nation's capital region. Forty years ago, he was a boy who loved to tinker with "things." Today, wearing a spiffy tailored white shirt with the DC Water logo and his name sewn on the front, he operates the world's largest advanced wastewater treatment plant.

Hawkins is also pursuing two dramatically different approaches to reduce the destructive torrents of polluted water that occur when storm water overwhelms Washington's century-old sewer system. The filthy mix of untreated discharge then flows directly into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, upstream from the imperiled Chesapeake Bay. He's under a $2.6 billion federal consent decree to fix the problem.

The first part of the solution will be a construction engineer's dream - a massive cement tunnel, 23 feet in diameter, dug by a machine the size of a football field. Constructed over 100 feet under the surface (deeper than the D.C. Metro system), it will run 13 miles from Northeast Washington to DC Water's Blue Plains treatment plant at the southernmost tip of the District. The tunnel itself will be a huge reserve container for the tainted storm water. But, at Blue Plains, the water will be intercepted by a 16-story deep treatment and storage structure with concrete walls able to resist the rushing torrent force during a storm - and then, gradually straining out the refuse, push the vast volume up to the surface for treatment.

Hawkins boasts about that project. But he questions whether a similar "big pipe" would work best to carry storm water to Blue Plains from Washington's Northwest Rock Creek and Potomac River sides. He has another preference - he'd like, instead, to "go green" with a radically different solution.

The essence of Hawkins' green plan: Absorb the water in place. This means an array of projects - green roofs, bioswales along the streets, grassy alleys, porous pavement for parking lots and the streets themselves.

The idea isn't altogether original: It's being undertaken in Philadelphia, itself under federal pressure to stop sending untreated sewage into local rivers and streams. The idea - to let rainwater seep back into the ground, rather than gush into aged sewer systems to be mixed with raw garbage - was impressive enough when I first heard of it, in 2006, from Howard Neukrug, the early lead advocate and now Philadelphia's Water Department commissioner.

But Hawkins adds some fascinating green-strategy elements. For a water agency, he says, true "green" represents "a huge, long-term management job" with a role for multiple local agencies. Bioswales need upfront construction but longer-term maintenance because silt can fill them in. Porous streets need to be cleaned appropriately. Green roofs require subsidy.

So Hawkins is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to let the tunnel work that has been planned for the Potomac side be postponed, investing instead in a serious green pilot. The idea is to see how many square feet of bioswales, porous pavements and green roofs can be constructed. To check on the efficiency of permits and maintenance, and to gauge how much storm water can actually be captured, plus total energy savings and "heat island" relief for the city. And then, after six to eight years, appoint an independent panel to evaluate the results.

Jobs would figure, too - gauging the slots, many for lower-skilled workers, in constructing and maintaining the new green infrastructure, lessening government spending for unemployment and welfare rolls.

And then there would be comparison with the $1 billion the tunnel would have cost, and perhaps underwrite a $200 million trust fund for long-term green maintenance, jobs included. And deciding, if the green steps fall a few points behind a tunnel collection of storm water, if the difference is significant.

Would such a "big green" experiment, trying and testing a range of promising directions, perhaps "giving" a little on rigid environmental standards in return for a more livable landscape, be worth the effort? Would staging the experiment in the capital city, assuring national attention, make a difference - perhaps a crucial one - as a potential model for environmental planning by cities nationwide? The answer ought to be a clear, strong "yes."

In the meantime, George Hawkins appears to have transformed DC Water from its defensive inward-looking posture into an open, consumer-oriented organization. The job will never be easy - citizens' complaints break out instantly whenever there's a break in the antiquated water mains, and even on expedited schedules, it will take decades to replace them. Consumer water rates have risen sharply under Hawkins, to start the long-overdue repair and modernization - and District of Columbia residents are resentful.

But who's to say government agency heads can't show the same management savvy, public outreach and vision of the best private sector CEOs? It's a delight to find one who seriously can.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.