D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) joins Kojo, Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis in the studio.
DC Water hopes to cultivate a more visible image with a new name and logo. But the agency is facing some old issues, including lead in the city’s drinking water and miles of century-old pipes. We speak with DC Water’s general manager George Hawkins about water safety, service, and what customers can expect in future water bills.
- George Hawkins General Manager, D.C. Water and Sewer Authority; former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's something we don't often think about. We turn on the tap and expect clean water to flow. But D.C. Water's general manager George Hawkins wants you to get to know your water company. The agency's trucks are sporting a new name and a new logo. Yet, many of the issues D.C. Water is facing are not so new, including miles of century-old pipes that need replacing and ongoing questions about the safety of the drinking water. In December, the Centers for Disease Control reported that thousands of District homes still had unsafe lead levels in the water, and the EPA raised concerns about another contaminant a few weeks later. This new stories may have alarmed some residents, and D.C. Water wants people to know the facts. So we're getting to know D.C. Water a little better.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in the studio -- most of the cabinet members in administrations and heads of agencies show up in the studio dressed in Washington uniforms, suits and ties. The general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment, always shows up wearing the uniform that his employees, his workers of that agency generally wear. So it's always easy to pick George Hawkins out in a crowd because there is that D.C. Water is Life jacket that he's sporting. George Hawkins, good to see you again.
MR. GEORGE HAWKINSGood to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd I'd like our audience to join the conversation. You can start calling. Are you concerned about the safety of the District's water? 800-433-8850. George, it's my understanding you welcomed the new speaker of the House of Representatives last week with a letter and a little gift.
HAWKINSWe did. The -- of course, Congress and all levels of government are trying to figure out ways to save money. And we're struck by the fact that many government agencies, including Congress, spends a lot of money on bottled water. And yet we produce this water for them at pennies to the gallon rather than the costs for bottled water. So we sent over a letter, indicating to him, the amount of money we believed he can save if she shifts over to using good old D.C. tap water that's at the ready 24 hours a day. And we also sent over some of our water bottles with our logo on the side, and we're offering to give one of those to each of the members of the Congress. I just brought one for you today.
NNAMDIThis silver water bottled that I'm holding in my hand that says dcwater.com, this is what you sent to the speaker?
HAWKINSYes. And we regularly give that out to members of the public as part of our campaign. Bottled water is one of the fascinating aspects of what has been sold to the public. Because bottled water is not regulated heavily, so the idea that, by nature, bottled water is gonna be more protective than tap water just isn't true. And there are all sorts of environmental consequences of the sheer scale of the plastic involved in these millions of bottled water, of the sheer amount of money and effort to takes to ship bottled waters around in trucks all over the country and the air pollutants, and it's just quite -- compared to the drinking water that comes right out of the tap. So we're really having at this question, if we want our customers -- and, well, it's one of the reasons I'm here and I've been here before, and we go out and talk to our customers all the time to have some reliance and faith in the drinking water that's in the spigot here or any other place where they live, visit or work.
NNAMDIWell, I'm here to tell you this attempted bribe won't get you any relief during the course of this broadcast. (laugh) This fall, your agency rolled out a campaign with a new name, a new logo, and the slogan water is life. Why did you think the agency needed rebranding?
HAWKINSThat's a good question. I mean, my view, both here in this city and across the country, is that the effort to deliver water, and then handle the water once it's done. Because our agency, we deliver you water that comes off with Potomac River, you use it -- we all use it for whatever the purposes we have for water, whether it's drinking, washing our car, dishwashing, as well as in the bathrooms. And then once the water is used, we take it back and cleanse it, and then put that water back in the Potomac. It's the original and largest recycling operation in any place, but it's also so fundamental to the life of a place. If you can't -- you can't have people collect together in civilization, unless you can deliver clean water, so that -- for their use and then clean it afterwards. And that's what we do.
HAWKINSIn contrast to the significance of water to society, most people have no idea, don't think about it, don't know about it, don't know the enormously complex system that's out there. Imagine delivering water 24 hours a day everywhere in the city at every moment, no matter what the weather, no matter what the time. We have 1,300 miles of water pipes. We have 37,000 valves. We have water pipe -- we have water distribution systems and pump stations and storage all over the city, complexity with computer systems that run it and these crews that do such good work. The reason I wear this uniform is to have solidarity with some of the hardest working people in Washington, D.C., that are out there repairing this system. And we need people to understand what is delivering it to them, so that when we come to them for their help, because they have to pay the bill for this, they understand what they're buying with the rates that they pay.
NNAMDISpeaking of hikes, we'll get to that in a second, because one of your biggest goals, since taking over in the fall of 2009, has been to update the district's water and sewer systems, including replacing miles of pipe from the 19th century.
HAWKINSWe do. Like many older cities in it -- and I didn't even originally answer your question, which is changing the logo and the name is not just for presence, it's for people to have a better understanding of what we do. It's part of our entire effort to communicate better to raise our visibility, so the people will understand. That means they often asked tougher questions. They come to more meetings. It's not just all fun and games. This is serious business delivering this service to the people we serve. And they need to know about us. The question of the infrastructure in most American cities, the American Society of Engineers ranked this infrastructure at D-minus in the country -- water and waste water -- which is amazing given how important it is, as I've said, to our ability to live every day. And the manner in which we update it is fundamentally connected to the willingness of our customers to pay the costs. We don't have any money that doesn't come from our rate base. And our customers won't wanna pay additional costs unless they understand why and where and what we're using the money for.
NNAMDIThis has been a tough sell, even to the city council members, has it not, very tight?
HAWKINSThere has been a tough sell. I think we're doing pretty well. I mean, our -- just last year, we had a significant rate hike. We went out and told everyone. We're not hiding. We went and actually offered to meet with -- in every council member's ward. We went into every organization who asked and many that didn't, because we wanna tell the story. We're not shying away from this question. And legitimate issues are raised about these increased rates, as they should be. But the scale of the rates are, the average single family bill for water bill is about $51, and it went up to just over $60. And you compare that to a cable bill or a power bill or a cell phone bill. It is -- the price is so much less than these other things we pay for. Yet when you think about what it's delivering to you every day and the importance it is to your everyday life, we -- I still think it's the best deal in municipal government is the deal you get from your Water and Sewer Authority.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Washington, D.C. on the issue of pipes. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
PAULThanks, Kojo. Thanks, George Hawkins. I just wanna say a word of support for Mr. Hawkins and the direction that he's taking D.C. Water, opening it up and really having a better conversation with the community. One question that I have is, water chemistry is gonna keep changing in the District of Columbia, and in order to ensure the public health of the most vulnerable in the District, babies and pregnant women and older folks, would D.C. WASA consider going to the ratepayers and asking them if they would be willing to subsidize the 15 percent of the pipe in general that doesn't get covered when D.C. Water takes out a public portion, and just get the public health benefits that only happen when you take out the whole lead-lined pipe between the street and to the home instead of part of the pipe?
PAULYou know, we have thousands of people who still have lead pipes or partial lead pipes. And what we know from the science is that it's likely that there's much more lead exposure for the babies and pregnant women and other vulnerable folks who are drinking still from those lines.
NNAMDIOld issue in the district, George Hawkins, lead and the drinking water.
HAWKINSOkay. Thank you, Paul, and thank you for the kind words. I know we have a long way to go. But we are certainly trying to do our best to change the direction of the enterprise. Just to give a quick background to the listeners who may not be as up to date on this question. The lead -- the water that's coming out of the mains, that are coming from the distribution system have almost no or no lead in it. Where the lead comes from is from the main that's out in the street. There's a line, obviously, that comes from the main to the business or the residence. That's called the service line. There's a portion of that line that's in the public space, that we are responsible for. And there's a portion of that line that's in the private space. That's the responsibility of the landowner.
HAWKINSWhen we had a lead spike, unfortunately, in the -- back in the 2000's that many people know, under EPA law regulatory requirements, D.C. -- WASA at the time -- now D.C. Water was required to replace those lines that were lead, but only in the public space. We were not required and couldn't obligate a private landowner to replace the lead lines that we're on the private side. What scholarship has shown, unfortunately, is that it didn't work, that taking the lead out of the public line without also removing the lead line from the private line did not decrease lead in the water. And in some cases, temporarily, would increase lead in the water. For reasons you can understand, when you're actually doing the construction, your jogging the pipes, anything that might be in the inside of pipe might be dislodge into the water way. So that was a program that did not work.
HAWKINSAnd what Paul is asking is whether or not we are considering going either to the ratepayers as a financial matter, because most folks do not do the private lines. So here, we're gonna replace a public line, would the private landowner replace their side of the -- of service line? It's a financial question. Do you wanna spend the thousands of dollars that it takes to do it on the private side? And we could have a program that subsidized that cost. I would imagine particularly for those in the lower income categories and there'd be income triggers like there are for a lot of programs. In parallel would be a consideration is do you require it? That when you're going to do a replacement of the public line, would you require the private line and then have some financing options? What I can tell you is that everything is on the table.
HAWKINSIn our most recent letters that we've sent out to our constituents -- this is our customers. This is how much we've changed. When we're doing our education materials now, we brought in some of that lead advocates in the city and had them look at these materials to make sure we were getting the message right. We just had announced a research project that we're doing with Marc Edwards in Virginia Tech and the parents for non-toxic alternative where we're working in concert. Those were some of the biggest critics of D.C. Water in the past. We're now working shoulder to shoulder to try to solve this challenge jointly, because we're both concerned.
HAWKINSWe don't currently have any proposals to require or to fund it, but both are good ideas and they're certainly on the table, Paul, and we're certainly more than willing to continue the discussion on those options. We do want our customers to know is that we do not do public line changes of the lead lines for that reason anymore. The board concluded that program when it turned out it wasn't working. But when you change a water main in the street, Kojo, to your earlier question when you said...
HAWKINS...we are changing water mains to get rid of the old ones and put in a new one. But when you put in a new water main, you often have to change the service line as part of the project. And that can yield a partial line replacement, because we'll only have change the public line. And that might be a case where we would consider. We do support the private landowner, but they still have to make an independent financial and operational decision.
NNAMDISo make sure you read those letters that you get from D.C. Water.
HAWKINSYes. And we can provide a lot of help and support on that front.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. It's my understanding that we had a record number of water main breaks in the month of December, 160?
HAWKINSWe did. It's -- this goes back to the -- one of the reasons I wear the uniform because of the great honor and respect that I have for our work teams that were out literally 24 hours a day. We had water main breaks. They don't respect holidays and all the time you wanna spend with your family. And the weather dropped very cold, very quickly. And what causes these water main breaks, it sort of like taking a hot plate and putting it under a cold sink, you can cause it to crack or glass to crack, same idea contraction of the underground soil and the waters that chill so quickly. And when we have an older pipe, they're brittle and they're old and so they crack more easily. And we had 160 water main breaks in a 31-day span. We had an all hands on deck, essentially. We had everybody out in the field responding 24 hours a day. We ask for the forbearance of our customers. We know that every one of these water mains that breaks cause sometimes limitations to service.
HAWKINSAnd I've talked to my friends in the power business and they always say, you know, it's bad when people lose power, but we always feel worried about you guys because when people don't have water, it's a crisis very quickly. And that's consistent with this general message we're delivering which is how important this is. But we've got our crews out there. We call them team blue. Give a shout out -- they didn't put these pipes in, they don't cause them to break, but they do work 24 hours a day to get them fixed. And the capital program and the rate proposals that we've been making are a direct answer. We wanna start replacing these pipes, not just patching them. Because you patch an old pipe, it can break again 10 feet down the road in which case you got to go back in and patch it again. It's not the right financial outcome. We need to replace these older pipes and get new ones in the ground.
NNAMDIYou might have to send out another letter. We got this comment posted on our website by Sophia. "I'm appalled that the brand new Arena Stage chose to install only two drinking fountains. Instead, they chose to make a profit by selling bottled water to patrons. I suppose it also has to do with allowing patrons to bring only bottled water into the theaters. Either way, it's very disturbing to see a new facility choosing to not go green." Time for George to send out another letter.
HAWKINSYes. And they're right down the street from -- I go by the Arena Stage all the time. I live in that neighborhood now so I will follow up on that. We do wanna -- we wanna -- we're looking at, for example, a program where restaurants can have a sticker in their window that if you're carrying one of the water bottles that I just gave you or your own and you wanna know where you can stop to fill it up, that there will be places where the restaurant will allow you to come in, fill water up in those places for free. It's good for them because they get someone walking in the restaurant. You may decide to stop and stay. But it's good for us because it gives an easy way to fill back up these water bottles. And independently, we're looking at how can we re-populate some of the most visited parts of the country here in Washington, D.C. with more places to get clean, fresh water right from it, right...
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with George Hawkins. He is the general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. If the lines are busy and you're trying to call, go to our website kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. When we come back, George Hawkins is gonna tell us what he likes so much about our break music. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation with George Hawkins. He is the general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment. A new water safety issue has come up recently. The Environmental Protection Agency says 31 cities including the District have a probably -- have a probable carcinogen in the tap water, the chemical most people know from the Erin Brockovich story. The EPA wants water utilities in D.C. and the other cities to test for the chemical called hexavalent chromium. Could you tell us exactly what that is, what it does to the water, and how difficult it would be to test for?
HAWKINSSure. The organization that issued this report or issue spotter was -- is called the Environmental Working Group, and they often do work like this. And chromium is something that we do test for. There's two types of chromium in a total chromium what we monitor among many chemicals we monitor for. And I wanna remind our listeners that in fact the water treatment for the water we distribute -- D.C. Water distributes the water to you as a customer, if you're visiting or working here, but it's the Aqueduct, which is a federal agency, that does the treatment and would test. We also test for chromium, but what we have been testing for is what's called total chromium.
HAWKINSTotal chromium includes two subcomponents, which in layman's term is chromium 4 and chromium 6. And it's chromium 6 is the one that's been identified as a carcinogen, typically for inhalation. And the question now is what its consequence when it's in water. What the Environmental Working Group discovered is that there are levels of chromium 6 that might be of concern in a number of major cities, including this one. They did one sample. That doesn't mean it's not important, that doesn't mean it didn't identify an issue that we should resolve. But doing one sample of a gigantic system is that. It's an issue spotter. It doesn't really tell you what you need to do or not.
HAWKINSWhat we have been doing for years is testing for total chromium. EPA has a limit for total chromium of 100 parts per billion. I just wanna give you the scale of what's historically been true. We test in the range of single digit parts per billion. So we've been in the very low end, way below the 100 parts per billion. There's a goal that has been discussed in certain areas that are less than 1 part per billion that California as a goal, not a regulatory number. And that's what the big debate is. What -- we do not believe this is a current health issue, but we do think it's worthy of attention so we are working with the Aqueduct, we are doing additional testing for chromium, both total chromium and also the constituents.
HAWKINSAnd once we get a much better picture of what's out there, we'll communicate with our customers like we seek to do in all of these cases. We take everything very seriously. We want our customers to know that public health really is our job one. So this was an issue spotter rather than certainty of what needs to be done. And we're on it.
NNAMDILet's listen to Carl in Washington, D.C. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLThank you, Kojo. My wife and I are renovating an old warehouse which is on an alley in Capitol Hill. We received all the zoning and historic permits and so on to do this, but D.C. Water has refused to provide water and sewer service even though their website says that they will provide service if we're more than 100 feet away from the water main or sewer main. And I'd like to know why this is -- why they are violating their own policy here?
HAWKINSThat's a good question. And I don't know the specifics of the case. These often get very detailed. I know that there are some occasions -- although I don't know if it applies in this case -- I'm happy to follow up or if you e-mail me at email@example.com, that e-mail will come to me and my executive assistant and we'll make sure we hear -- we get these kinds of inquiries all the time and we do look into them. We try to be very customer service oriented. I know that in some cases the issue has been when there's interior lots that don't have access to the water main out in the street, that presents a problem to us because if we're gonna make a connection on an interior lot, we need to know we can get in there and manage the connection over time.
HAWKINSI don't know if that's relevant in this situation. I know that it's happened before. Usually, there's ways that we can work around those questions. But that's -- typically, the question is -- and, Kojo, you'd be interested that -- you've probably seen some of the questions of private hydrants that are out there in the city.
HAWKINSIt's a similar theory, which is when we -- if we take responsibility for something, we know we have to have access to it so that we can take care of it over time, long into the future. And that's one of the issues with the private hydrants as well. We wanna make sure that we are capable of maintaining and updating the system over time, and that might be the issue here. But if you e-mail me directly, we'll look into it specifically and find out what's happening.
NNAMDICarl, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Here is Jill on Capitol Hill again. Jill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JILLThank you. I would like Mr. Hawkins to explain something that he was talking about a little bit earlier, which was about the private and public space. And it's -- I have a follow-up. So if he could explain where that cuts off in terms of what their responsibility is and what the responsibility of the customer is.
NNAMDIOr the homeowner.
HAWKINSSure. Yes. I mean, when EPA was originally writing the rules that govern what a response is when there's elevated lead in water, there was original proposal that there had to be full lead service line replacement. That would mean replacing both the pipe that's in the public space -- so it's our responsibility already -- and the pipe that's in the private side, which starts from the private landowner's property line to the -- into the building and then, of course, into the indoor plumbing.
NNAMDILet me stop for one second right there, Jill. That would be, as he explained, the part of the pipe that goes from your property line all the way into the home.
JILLOkay. That's the issue, which is the property line in Capitol Hill and in many of the older areas is the front of the house. And a lot of times the Water and Sewer people only brought it as far as the roadway and the sidewalk, and they did not go under the steps, under the front yards unless the person paid for it. But technically, (word?) it is part of public space.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, George Hawkins?
HAWKINSThat's a good piece of information. It's -- I've heard conversation of this, both ways, and we get very strong responses from homeowners on both sides of this because if it is public and we can go in and do work without getting approval. There's a very large number of homeowners get very distressed by that. And, on the other hand, in other cases where it would be to an advantage of us going up to that edge.
HAWKINSSo there's been a lot of debate back and forth, and I'm glad you've re-raised it. And that's the sort of thing where lawyers need to make sure that they know that the outcome is. And then we have to have a public policy that people also understand because I think most people are very distressed if you go in and start doing work underneath there.
NNAMDIAmong other things, are you also a lawyer?
HAWKINSI am, actually.
NNAMDII thought you would be. Then why don't you know the answer to this question yet?
HAWKINSWell, it seems to be one that is steeped in history and where custom and practice has been different, perhaps, than what the letter of the law would be, and we have to catch up.
NNAMDIJill, thank you very much for your call. This comment was posted on our website by Jacquetta (sp?) . "I live in a new townhome in Southwest D.C. We are on a common meter for all the homes on the street. The water pressure has been terrible since day one. The builder insists it's a D.C. Water problem -- old pipes. The lines are being replaced in the street in front of my house as we speak. Will this fix the problem? What if it does not?"
HAWKINSIt should fix the problem. We do have issues around the city with not only old pipes that are subject to breakage, but think of these pipes having been put in long before anyone anticipated the scale of development that we see in the city today. So, yes, putting in new systems. The old pipes, if they've been in there a long time, they, over time, corrode on the inside of a pipe. It's almost like hardened arteries in our own bodies. So you look at a pipe that's been pulled out of the ground that's 100 years old, and the amount of actual space that the water has to get through has been narrowed because of the corrosion that's around the edges.
HAWKINSSo when you put in a brand new system that's at full size, yes, it increases pressure. If that does not resolve the problem, you should get right back to us. There's a way to get to us on our website, dcwater.com. We have all our telephone numbers. We have a customer service operation that we'd be delighted to keep after this. We want our customers to have good solid pressure into their homes. And if this doesn't resolve it, we'll keep at it.
NNAMDITom in Washington, D.C. You're on the air, Tom. Go ahead.
TOMYes. Mr. Hawkins, I'm going to just speak to a credibility problem because of past history. I began buying my house in '81, and at that time, WASA was returning extra funds to the general fund for the District of Columbia, which means that customers were paying more than the water actually cost. And secondarily, there's a 20-day billing cycle for WASA, which caught me by surprise because I was late one month and I said, well, I'll pay it the first of the next month. Unfortunately, the bill came due in 20 days, which I wasn't aware of, and they cut off my water. When the water came back on, I got a rebate for over $200 because I had been being overcharged on estimated bills.
NNAMDIYou're running out of time pretty quickly, Tom. Question?
TOMOkay. And then lastly, paying for the part of the pipe that comes directly to the homes. I saw an estimate in the Washington Post that showed that if all the homes paid for that extra pipe, it would pay for the entire cost of replacing pipes here in the District.
HAWKINSWell, on the question -- on the first side, on your bill, I'm surprised to hear that we cut off your water if you just -- it is not our practice to cut off someone's water service if there's one bill that's late. And so if that had -- if that has happened, I wanna hear about it. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. You send a message directly to me. Cutting off someone's water is a very significant step, and we only take it after every other protective or follow-up calls, phone, putting in a payment plan. There's all sorts of steps that happen or should happen before that outcome is reached. So if that happened that quickly to you, I apologize on our behalf. We don't by practice and should not be doing that with our customers.
HAWKINSThe cost of updating the systems we have, whether it's the private lines going from the mains to the home or the old mains that are in the street are very significant. We're talking about billions of dollars of expenditures. This is a huge system. It was put in over 150 years. And we've got old pipes. And when you replace these, it is not a simple operation. You've got to dig up the street. You've got to -- there's a whole -- it's an engineering question. You're often not quite sure what you're gonna find when you get down there. So, yes, this is a significant expenditure, both for this city and other American cities. I personally think it's the best single dollar you can spend. There's jobs that have to be -- work has to be done here. It supports every building, every job in the city to have good water and sewer services, and we can put people to work, we can improve service and we can make our cities work. So I think it's a well-invested dollar.
NNAMDITom, thank you very much for your call. I mentioned earlier the break music that we used in this broadcast and we're running out of time very quickly. But I'd just kinda like to hear it again.
NNAMDIThis music sounds so familiar. I saw a YouTube video with an individual dancing to this music, and I think that individual was you.
HAWKINSGuilty as charged, and happily so. We -- this was a -- we work hard, and our folks work hard all the time. And we -- most of our holiday party was paid for, by the way, out of our own money that we get through our vending machines in our operation. But we had a holiday party and I began the tradition of doing a dance for our staff to kick off the whole thing, and that was the music we used. You can go to our Facebook page. We would love you to be a friend on our Facebook page. We have Twitter. We have YouTube. Come to our website, dcwater.com. But that video is there and I can't vouch for whether my dancing is any good or not, but I certainly had fun and I love the people I work with.
NNAMDII would love to be able to say that George Hawkins was, in that YouTube video, a terrible dancer. But I can't say that because you turned out to be pretty good. You looked like you rehearsed a little bit for that, did you?
HAWKINSMy past has a fair amount of time dancing. I've always enjoyed dancing. I think people should work hard and have some fun, too. But, yes. What was supposed to happen, when you -- folks, if you watch that video, a group of people was supposed to come out and dance with me. But the crowd was so big they couldn't get through the crowd, so I was left out there by myself. I'm not particularly shy, so I still had fun. But, yes, there was a dance I learned for that.
NNAMDIAnd the group of people was so fascinated by George's dancing skills that they delayed their entry onto it. But you'll eventually see them dancing alongside him. George Hawkins is the general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. Thank you so much for joining us.
HAWKINSI'm so delighted to be here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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