From The Editor | January 31, 2018

Lessons From DC Water's Rock Star, George Hawkins


By Kevin Westerling


In just eight years at DC Water, which provides drinking water, sewage collection, and sewage treatment in Washington, D.C., serving more than 600,000 residents, George Hawkins transformed the utility from insular and guarded to open and innovative.

In the process, the former CEO and general manager, having stepped down in early January, lifted DC Water to exemplary status among U.S. utilities and became an industry star of sorts. If you’re a regular reader of industry publications such as this or an attendee of national water/wastewater conferences, you likely know his name and perhaps some of his achievements.

Before Hawkins hung up his flair-laden DC Water vest for the last time to seek new ventures, I caught up with him to reflect upon his past eight years, which proved to be transitional for DC Water and influential for any other utility paying attention.

Looking back, which of your many achievements at DC Water make you most proud?

I would say there are two — one internal-facing and the other external-facing.

Externally, I really do believe that we have — through the force of action, not just words — transformed how people perceive DC Water. It doesn’t mean they’re always happy with us every minute of the day; we’re just too big of an organization that does too many things. But I think the sense of the enterprise is of an environmental agency working to protect water, being creative and innovative in the manner in which it does, being responsive to the people we serve, delivering value for the money that’s invested in us, and being willing to listen and hear from the people we serve, even when they’re mad at us.

Internally, I’m most pleased with the team that we pulled together. It’s a combination of longstanding veterans who were here and were encouraged to stay, to continue to deliver the wisdom that they’ve hard-won over the years, as well as talent that we’ve drawn in from outside the organization.

Ultimately, my happiest moments are when I’m able to identify and encourage — whether it’s an existing or new employee — somebody coming into the enterprise, give them an area where they exhibit skill and expertise, and essentially step back and hopefully enable them with the tools that they need to succeed and let them go.

It’s always dangerous to brag, because pride goeth before the fall, as they say. But this is a Super Bowl team, and it’s really fun and really rewarding to see them in action.

What has DC Water done to create the culture and environment you described, so that other utilities might replicate it?

On the external front, we probably have the most extensive outreach program during our rate season of any utility in the country. I personally stand in front of the people — anyone who has contacted us in the prior year or two, that we have a record for, is invited to these meetings; plus, they are generally publicized. At each town hall, every one of our major divisions is represented, but I hope to answer all the questions myself.

If you’ve got specific questions I can’t answer, we have people on-hand who can get you an answer, hopefully within 24 hours. That has been a fundamental element of the [utility-customer] relationship and the specific pact we’re making with the people we serve — what they get in exchange for supporting us with the rate revenue that we need.

There are a lot of things like that, but foremost is adopting a culture of a customer-oriented enterprise.

Customers may not have the choice of connecting to other utilities, but they absolutely have a lot of choices about how they react to us. What we want is a positive reaction, or at least the opportunity to make our case. I think the cultural change at DC Water is now so deep and strong that my role in it is unhelpful. I know how to do these things and I’ve been doing them for a long time, but it’s really incidental. It’s the organization. I think there’s pride in the logo. I think there’s pride in how we communicate with the public. It has just become part of how the agency does its work.

I’m really proud of it, and all of those things are absolutely replicable.

Can you recap some of the technologies that were spearheaded by DC Water?

Big technology and software or sensors are what a lot of people think about in terms of innovation, and there's nothing wrong with that, but one of my favorite innovations — and we just got a patent on it — is for a redesigned sewer-pick, which is this old, iron thing used to open up a manhole cover. It used to be about three feet in length, so it was about up to your hip, with a handle you would pull up from the side of the manhole. It was designed to hurt your back! There was just no way to do that without injuring yourself, so one of our longest-standing employees redesigned it to be longer and to have a crook in it, like you would see on some snow shovels.

Our innovations run from a sewer-pick to huge, $500-million investments like thermal hydrolysis. It was the first time in North America that the thermal hydrolysis process [THP] — the CAMBI system — had been installed, and it’s still the largest installation in the world. It’s generating clean power and Bloom soil.

We’re also building the world’s largest sidestream DEMON anammox facility. That’s the new technique to remove nutrients; it saves power and chemicals. ‘Sidestream’ means all the stuff we’re stripping off in the process while we’re treating it. You have to manage that flow as well, and it’s very high-strength. That’s another $100-million-plus investment that will be christened [in 2018].

DC Water also does software. We spearheaded the creation of what’s called HUNA, or high use notification alert software. When the city first installed AMR smart meters, there was no software that would automatically communicate with the customer when water use jumps unexpectedly, based on past usage. We helped write the HUNA software ourselves, and it’s absolutely been one of our most successful, practical programs with our customers.

And the manner in which we do research is replicable, because it’s not expensive. Most of the research work is done by partners identified with local universities who are looking for their PhD or similar scale of academic credential. We give them the lab space to do projects that are relevant to us. They get an excellent PhD project at a practical area of science that could help their careers, and we get PhD-level research almost for free. We usually have 15 to 20 PhD-level research projects going on at any given time and we’re doing it at a very low budget, which is one of the reasons we keep generating all these new patents and new ideas — because we have this hotbed of intellectual research.

Is there any advice you have for getting stakeholder buy-in on new and potentially expensive initiatives?

When it comes to getting innovative steps approved by a board and then supported financially by ratepayers, the board has to come first. You don’t get a chance to present anything to your ratepayers unless the board has been persuaded.

By the time we had approval for the thermal hydrolysis and biosolids program, we must have presented to our board 20 times on every aspect of that transaction — putting everything on the table and being very clear about what the risks are, hiding nothing, answering all questions. It’s just the old-fashioned way, and there’s a certain magic when you feel that you’ve developed a rapport with the board, based on their openness to the ideas you present.

The board still has to make their decision, but they can trust the information that’s coming to them. That’s the premise. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can absolutely be built over time. Once it is, there’s a lot that’s possible.

The THP innovation was a large project that wasn’t driven by mandate, so what inspired your pursuit of it?

I would say several things. One is that I gained a lot of passion from the team. We have folks at DC Water who were so passionate about doing a project like that that it was not hard for me to pass on that passion to the board. We had it on staff; we had folks who really believed in it.

It was hard for me to think of doing anything other than that, when you consider the rational reasons and rational steps that needed to be taken. We know that biosolids management is going to be a permanent part of our industry — there’s always going to be stuff we’re moving from the waste flow that we don’t want in our rivers and oceans. So we have a long-term challenge.

Our prior [biosolids] solution was nearly broken down, and we were going to have to spend a lot of money just getting back to that old solution. The old solution also generated Class B biosolids, for which, as you know, we weren’t facing any regulatory hurdle. But in the back of my mind, I have always worried about what happens when a jurisdiction decides they don’t want Class B biosolids anymore, which is a possibility. So even if it isn’t a regulatory driver, it is a risk and a liability that would be great to eliminate.

Yes, we would be investing, ultimately, nearly $500 million on this project. But how much energy could we produce? How could we turn 60 tanker-trucks’ worth of sludge, which is just a cost to us every day, into a product, Bloom soil, that we could sell? We did the financial analysis. We thought this would be cash-flow positive, meaning that we would save more money and generate more money than the debt service of what it costs to build the project in the first place.

When you get that kind of return, those are the projects that should be built. I was delighted. The final 10 meetings on THP were not about the technology or the process. It was all about the finances, the budget, how it would work, and why it was a good investment to make.

I think it absolutely has been [a good investment], but it started off with making sure the technology worked. Then the secondary question was how to make the financing work. I’m delighted that both came to the forefront.

One other side benefit is that when you do projects like this, you gain such visibility and such reputation that it draws talent.

What you hear all the time is that operators are retiring, and there’s worry about who will fill the utility jobs of the future. Well, when you take really innovative, creative, groundbreaking steps, even if there are challenges to them and unforeseen circumstances, that’s what people want in their lives. They want projects that are meaningful, where they can change the world, or their little piece of it. What we’ve found is that we get really great talent coming in, because, as I like to say: If you’ve got a good idea, be careful because we just might do it.

People like being part of that. I know I do.