The Revelations of George Hawkins

After more than eight years, DC Water’s top executive is stepping down. How he earned his reputation for utility management excellence began long before the utility’s resurgence to global recognition.

 By Andrew Farr

“I do what I do well,” George Hawkins says.

Taken out of context, it would seem the CEO and general manager of the District of Columbia Water & Sewer Authority – DC Water – is confidently boasting. But Hawkins doesn’t boast. In this case, he’s merely referring to what he describes as the essence of his job – communicating.

“That’s what I do, that’s my profession. If I didn’t do that well, I don’t know what the hell else I would do,” he jokes, declaring that he is not an engineer and doesn’t know much about running treatment plants.

But Hawkins acknowledges that communicating is probably his best professional trait and the reason he was hired to head up one of the nation’s largest public water/wastewater utilities in 2009.

“George is probably one of the best communicators I’ve ever been around,” says Carlton Ray, director of DC Water’s massive Clean Rivers Project. “I think he’s one of the best public leaders in the country at this time.”

It’s not difficult to see where Hawkins gets it. A former environmental lawyer, he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Princeton University and Cum Laude from Harvard Law School. He’s a member of the Bar in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, and since 1999, has occasionally taught environmental law and policy at Princeton. Over the course of his career, Hawkins estimates he’s been to more than 5,000 public meetings and given “quadrillions” of talks at industry events, conferences, workshops, government meetings, academic forums and, well, you get the idea. The bottom line, George Hawkins is in high demand when it comes to his perspective on water and utility management.

What’s perhaps most unique about him is his reputation.

People know him – if not personally, then likely by name. If you work in the water sector, you’ve probably heard it. In person, he’s the one wearing the white button-down utility uniform with the DC Water logo.

Of course, none of this is surprising in this day and age of the visible public utility official. More and more, water and wastewater authorities have branded themselves to get public buy-in, engaging in public relations campaigns to promote the valuable work they do while lauding their leaders as environmental stewards. Hawkins no doubt fits that profile and has been integral in that movement.

But Hawkins isn’t putting on an act. He approaches his job with energy, passion and charisma in a way that inspires people around him.

“I think that guy just made wastewater treatment cool,” said one attendee at a conference a couple years back after Hawkins finished delivering the keynote address.

The people who relish his passion most are his employees at DC Water. Hawkins asserts that his team is comprised of some of the most talented people in the industry. He refers to some of them as superstars. For the past eight years, Hawkins’ job has been to get the best out of them and the results speak for themselves. Since 2009, DC Water has turned the page from being a utility once stained with controversy over elevated lead levels in drinking water – among other challenges – to one that has gained a global reputation for its innovation in green infrastructure, project finance, resource recovery, award-winning tunneling projects and much more.

“In my experience, the culture of an organization is established from the top-down,” says Mark Kim, former CFO of DC Water who worked closely with Hawkins for several years at the utility. “Without question, at DC Water, George Hawkins established our corporate culture. His passion for the business we do and his real interest and caring for the people who work at DC Water is something very unique.”

In September, Hawkins announced he will be stepping down from his position with DC Water at the end of 2017 to focus on other endeavors. As he concludes his tenure as the utility’s chief executive, he leaves a lasting impression on the industry that has earned him celebrity-like status. For his visionary leadership at DC Water, as well as his national impact on the public water sector, Hawkins is our 2017 Water Finance & Management Award winner.

Hawkins once wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon in the fourth grade as part of a school assignment.

The subject? You guessed it – water and air pollution.

Growing up in the greater Cleveland area, he says he has detailed memories of Northeast Ohio’s waterways, especially their condition.

“I remember being struck as a kid about how pollution was everywhere,” he says. “When I was a kid playing with my friends in the streams and ponds near where we lived, there were open sewers that discharged into nearby streams. When we swam in Lake Erie, the first thing you did was go and see how many dead fish were in the way.”

Prior to the Clean Water Act, this wasn’t uncommon.

“Of course, we didn’t know about [environmental regulation] but it was obvious to us there were problems,” he continues. “I remember visiting the Cuyahoga River one day and thought it looked like a finger painting. It had so many colors swirling around amongst this massive industrial complex. It looked like it probably could have caught on fire that day.”

As history goes, the Cuyahoga River would in fact catch on fire in 1969, an event that would go on to symbolize the environmental movement in the United States, prompting the Clean Water Act in 1972.

“But that’s a horrendous picture of where we were with water,” Hawkins says. “It’s been very connected to what I’ve done ever since.”

Contrary to his vivid recollection of the environment as a kid, Hawkins did not initially consider water or environmental work as a career choice. He would eventually enter law school and admits that while law was what he was good at, he lacked a certain passion for it. In 1989, while working for a law firm in Boston, Hawkins encountered a case that would begin to shape his career path.

It all started when word got around the office that he had been writing a science fiction novel in his spare time. An associate in the firm who had heard about this thought that with Hawkins’ interest in science, he might be interested in an environmental case.

That night, his colleague sent him a Clean Water Act permit case that involved a facility that wanted to recycle water in order to save money. The issue in question was whether it was acceptable for the facility to then discharge the recycled water with a higher concentration of pollutants even though the quantity of the discharge was the same.

“I was fascinated because it raised important public policy questions about the ecology of the stream the water was being discharged into, the surrounding community and the people who worked at the plant,” he says. “There was also the overlay of complex rules and laws designed to manage this.”

Hawkins says it was the point at which he realized how many legal questions there are around water and everything it touches. “At that moment I knew I wanted to be an environmental lawyer and focus on water issues,” he says.

To this day he has never had his novel published, noting that the process of editing it for actual publication would be more like a job than something he originally did just for fun.

“I don’t know if this guy would have ever sought me out with this case if he hadn’t heard I was writing a science fiction novel,” he says. “So even though that novel was never published, it’s totally changed my life.”

Hawkins estimates he’s been to thousands of public meetings in his career and jokes he’s given quadrillions of talks at industry events, conferences, workshops, government meetings and academic forums.

Path to DC Water

Hawkins says he considers the night he read that first case his introduction to the world of environmental law and policy as it pertains to water. Since then, he has had what he refers to as various themes or “revelations” throughout his career that have refined his fascination and understanding of water and the environment – spanning from the moment he discovered what POTW stands for right up until today.

He spent another four years at the law firm in Boston, handling every environmental-related case that came in. His education continued. After that, he moved over to the public sector and spent about five years going after polluters as an enforcement lawyer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The next revelation.

Because Hawkins had recently come from the private sector, part of his charge at EPA involved working to improve the agency’s regulatory process. He would soon go to Washington, D.C., to serve then-Vice President Al Gore on the National Performance Review, where he played a role in helping to bring more efficiency to programs at EPA and OSHA, examining the agencies’ process and whether they were fulfilling their core purposes. Some of his ideas were adopted, others weren’t. But it was throughout this time that Hawkins says he learned about the inter-workings of a large bureaucratic enterprise and the challenges of changing it. “I saw a lot that worked and a lot that didn’t, which was really helpful to me in the years that followed,” he says.

Hawkins’ next revelation occurred near the end of his time serving on the National Performance Review when he became more familiar with the challenges caused by non-point source pollution.

“I remember realizing these rivers were already polluted and discovered that it was all non-point sources,” he says. “I had never heard of non-point source pollution before. I realized, if my goal is to protect the environment, the old-fashioned programs of reducing pollutants at these discharge points had now reached a point where it was no longer an efficient outcome. The main pollutant sources were elsewhere.”

That prompted Hawkins to turn his attention to addressing non-point source pollution, as he took a job working with the Stony Brook Watershed Association in New Jersey. There, he built a substantial land use program based on water, mostly involving cleanup of the Stony Brook and Millstone River, a large water supply in central New Jersey.

After seven years in that position, Hawkins began to realize that solving the problem of non-point sources, such as runoff from farm fields, office parks, highways and other sources was often predicated on the location and circumstance of urban development. Another revelation.

A short time later Hawkins was approached by a representative of then-mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty, who was interested in rebuilding the D.C. metropolitan area to be more environmentally sound. It was exactly what Hawkins was looking for. He would eventually join the District Department of the Environment where one of his first appointments was to serve on the board of directors for DC Water. That was 2007. By 2009, he was named CEO and general manager.

“I jumped at the chance to come work at DC Water,” he says, noting that despite his extensive experience working from almost every angle of improving water quality issues, he had actually never worked for a utility. “I had only sued them, regulated them and agitated them.”

“Without question, at DC Water, George Hawkins established our corporate culture. His passion for the business we do and his real interest and caring for the people who work at DC Water is something very unique.”

–Mark Kim, former CFO, DC Water

At the time, DC Water wasn’t engaged in green infrastructure but Hawkins saw a unique opportunity to leverage everything the utility touched to not only improve the quality of the District’s waterways, but to implement initiatives that would transform urban redevelopment with a long-term outlook.

“I had a pretty good sense of the whole picture,” he says of that time in his career. “What led me to DC Water was the recognition that as we were rebuilding Washington, D.C., and trying to make it greener, probably the single biggest factor hampering development was old water infrastructure. There were also the possibilities of what you could do with water if you designed it into facilities from the very beginning.”

The Results

Fast-forward eight years and DC Water is considered by many to be a global model for water and wastewater management. The utility serves 681,000 residential customers over a total service area of 725 sq-miles. It provides wholesale wastewater treatment services for 1.6 million people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia. It has the ability to pump and distribute nearly 100 million gallons of water each day and can collect and treat an insane 300 million gallons of wastewater a day.

When Hawkins took the reins at DC Water, some of the top priorities for the authority included its Clean Rivers Project to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek, transforming its relationship with customers and improving its capabilities of responding to lead in drinking water – an issue that publicly scarred the District in the early 2000s. It’s initiatives on lead pipe have continued even recently with the introduction of its “lead map” in 2016 that allows customers to access information about their service line pipe materials.

The Clean Rivers Project, which was implemented in response to a 2005 federal consent decree, is now on track to be completed by 2030. The $2.6 billion program is comprised of deep tunnels, sewers and diversion facilities to capture CSOs and deliver them to DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Hawkins almost always opts for the white utility uniform and steel toe boots look over a suit and tie, especially when he’s in the trenches, tunnels or treatment plants to check out projects with his DC Water team.

One of the unique aspects of the Clean Rivers Project is its use of green infrastructure, which Hawkins was instrumental in pushing. The Anacostia and Potomac River tunnel systems include more than 18 miles of tunnels that are larger than the DC metro tunnels and are constructed more than 100 ft below the ground. When complete, the project will reduce CSOs annually by 96 percent across the system and by 98 percent for the Anacostia River alone.

The Clean Rivers Project’s Blue Plains Tunnel – a $330 million procurement and once the largest in DC Water’s history – was completed on time and under budget. It has been awarded TBM: Tunnel Business Magazine’s Tunnel Achievement Award and ENR’s 2016 Project of the Year in water and environment, among many other nationally-recognized honors.

Ray adds that while the Clean Rivers Project has been the result of the “Super Bowl” team at DC Water, he emphasizes that components like green infrastructure would not have been possible without Hawkins’ support, leadership and drive to make sure the projects have a long-term impact on the district and community.

“He always seems to me to have a clear vision of what is right,” Ray says. “He inspires people to think bigger and to act with larger goals in mind. That’s a remarkable trait. He’s not just thinking about the end of the day, he’s thinking about next year, next generation.”

In addition to the Clean Rivers Project, DC Water has been renowned for it’s resource recovery efforts, notably its Walter F. Bailey Bioenergy Facility that generates electricity from wastewater treatment. At the time of its construction, the facility was the largest of its kind in world to use thermal hydrolysis to complete the waste-to-energy process. The project was awarded the 2016 US Water Prize from the US Water Alliance.

Under Hawkins’ leadership at DC Water, innovation hasn’t just occurred on the construction side of things. There’s also the question of paying for all this work.

In 2016, the authority issued the nation’s first Environmental Impact Bond (EIB) to fund the initial green infrastructure implementation for the Clean Rivers Project. The EIB allows DC Water to attract investment in green infrastructure through a financing technique whereby the costs of installing green infrastructure are paid for by DC Water, but the performance risk of managing stormwater runoff is shared amongst DC Water and the investors. The use of the EIB has established a funding model that other municipalities can follow to advance the use of green infrastructure.

DC Water has also innovated in its use of century bonds to help pay for portions of the Clean Rivers Project, which, among other benefits, spreads the costs of the project more affordably to those who benefit over the next 100 years – a move that directly impacts future generations.

“It would be exciting for a CFO to work on one deal that is groundbreaking and innovative, but to work on several deals that each broaden the field of finance for a water utility was incredibly rewarding, professionally,” says Kim. “I really owe a tremendous amount to the leadership and support of the DC Water board, along with George, to support that type of risk taking and to tackle head-on the greatest challenge facing our industry – financing.”

The Approach

There’s a great line from the 2015 film “Steve Jobs” in which the late Apple co-founder analogizes to the Steve Wozniak character how even though he’s not a software engineer, he’s the one who makes the company tick because he directs all the pieces: “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”

Hawkins owns a similar analogy in which he describes his team at DC Water as a really good jazz band. Hawkins is the conductor but each member of the band has the ability to either improvise and play on their own, or play totally together.

“But you realize the jazz band conductor looks really good when the players in the band are so damn good,” he says.

For Hawkins, rarely has one day been the same as the next at DC Water.

New challenges have presented themselves almost daily on top of his regular responsibilities. Most of his time in meetings has been spent listening rather than talking. He admits he’s sometimes the person in the room who knows the least about whatever subject is being discussed. Often, Hawkins is the one playing the arbitrator role, which requires him to employ his technique of “hard listening” in order to be in a position to make a call.

“You realize the jazz band conductor looks really good when the players in the band are so damn good.”

–Hawkins on his employees at DC Water

“My favorite part of any job – and I’ve seen it here more than anywhere else – is seeing groups of people come together and overcome challenges that seemed insurmountable,” he says.

Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), observes Hawkins’ style as being part of an industry trend in which there’s more of an outward aspect to public utility leadership.

“He’s an individual with an Ivy League-educated law background, not an engineering background,” says Krantz. “He understands what it’s like to speak publicly and engage branding and marketing of your efforts and to be in front of the public and the media with those efforts. It was a changing time in the industry when that trend started, and George has brought a unique set of skills to his position that you don’t see very often.”

Hawkins has made it a point to be personally involved with DC Water’s mission, as shown here working the DC Water booth at a Washington Nationals baseball game.

The Next Revelation

Hawkins has no plans to leave the water industry when he steps down as CEO and general manager at the end of the year. He says he will likely continue to be involved with DC Water in some type of advisory role and will continue to help with the initiatives of its non-profit Blue Drop, which was launched in 2016.

Hawkins will also stay in the game on a national level, continuing to serve on the board of directors for several associations including NACWA, the US Water Alliance and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. In August 2016, Hawkins was appointed to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council by President Barack Obama, anther role he continues to serve in.

His next revelation will also consist of helping utilities to evaluate and implement new technologies and approaches, similar to what he’s been able to introduce at DC Water.

“I haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to implement that,” he says. “I think part of what we’ve been able to do here the last eight years is prove what a public utility can do.

“There’s nothing I hate more than the commonplace criticism that public agencies are slow or inefficient. We’ll compete with anybody, anywhere, anytime on anything. We’ve proven what you can do as a public agency. And if I can somehow help other public agencies do the same, that’s the theme of what will come next.”

For more, check out George Hawkins’ blog post, “Moonshot” on his website in which he details his perspective on innovation in the water sector and DC Water’s road to becoming a globally-recognized water authority.

Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management, published by Benjamin Media. He has covered the water sector in North America for six years and also covers the North American trenchless construction industry for sister publications Trenchless Technology and NASTT’s Trenchless Today.


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