On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Paul Brown
They’re invisible parts of our built environment: the complex, underground networks that connect our homes and work places to water, sewage and electricity systems. But many of these systems are rapidly deteriorating and contributing to longstanding environmental problems like storm water runoff and sewage spills. We talk with architect Roger Lewis and George Hawkins of DC Water about the design and price-tag of rebuilding and “greening” our infrastructure.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
- George Hawkins General Manager, D.C. Water and Sewer Authority; former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment
MR. PAUL BROWNFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Paul Brown from NPR sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, it's a critical part of our built environment, but the water systems that run underneath the Washington region are mostly invisible, out of sight, out of mind until something goes spectacularly wrong -- a winter water main break, a sinkhole the size of a city bus or a water bill that takes a bigger bite out of our paycheck.
MR. PAUL BROWNIn the District, the average water pipe is 77 years old, and many parts of the sewer system date back to the 1800s. For years, governments and utilities have kicked the can down the road, postponing the huge costs of updating an aging system. But some local communities are beginning to confront that history and grapple with tough questions about what a sustainable future would look like.
MR. PAUL BROWNThis hour, we're exploring how infrastructure, water system, power systems, roads, bridges, lighting fit into broader debates about smart growth. And we'll talk about whether we as consumers are really willing to pay for the kinds of upgrades we need. Joining us are: Roger Lewis, architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post. He's a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park. Roger, welcome back.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you very much.
BROWNA frequent inhabitant of these studios. And George Hawkins is general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. George, I've gotten a lot of mail from you over the years, not personally, but with your stamp on it. He's also a former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment. George, thanks for coming in.
MR. GEORGE HAWKINSGlad to be here. Thank you, Paul.
BROWNWell, first, gentlemen, when we're talking about water systems, we're really talking about a system for delivering clean drinking water, a system also for taking away dirty water, used water. If each of these systems covers more than a thousand miles of pipes across our region, as I understand, can you give us a sense, George, perhaps, of where our system stands now and how well-positioned it is to meet our current demand?
HAWKINSThat's a great question, and you're right. The system to deliver water on one end -- well, the water, I'm drinking here right in the studio...
HAWKINS...tap water is...
HAWKINS...comes from the Potomac. The water comes off the Potomac. There's a massive distribution system to deliver that water to every user in Washington, D.C. Imagine the scheme that's needed. We have buildings and residences in every elevation in the city. And every time that spigot goes on, the water has got to be at the ready and ready to flow 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So there's a massive 1,300 miles of pipes on the drinking water side delivering the water on the front end, which is the same pipes, by the way, that supports fire suppression.
HAWKINSSo we have 9,100 public fire hydrants in the District which are...
BROWNOne system does every thing. Wow.
HAWKINSIt does both purposes. So we have that. There's pump stations. There's systems of reservoirs and storage because, in fact, we have storage all over the city at different elevations because the water that comes to this building and every building is fed by gravity. We don't want to be pumping water into your building or your house. You'd know it. It would come in with knocking sound of a pump.
HAWKINSBut to have it at gravity, we don't want to pump water all the way up to the highest elevation in the city and then have it flow all the way back down to a low elevation. So, in fact, we've divided the city into different elevations. And we have storage at every elevation.
BROWNNow, are these reservoirs in the forms of towers, or what are they?
HAWKINSBoth. We have water towers and underground reservoirs. It's a system can -- with a computer-controlled mechanism. It's very sophisticated, actually.
BROWNSo if you move around D.C., I mean, I realize I've never looked for this, but if I were to walk around D.C., I might see some of these towers?
HAWKINSYou -- the Fort Reno, the beautiful, actually, architectural brick towers up on the top of the hill at Fort Reno, that's just a water tower inside of it.
HAWKINSSo that's one that's most visible. There is some less visibly attractive water towers on the Anacostia side, the east side of the Anacostia. The underground -- the closest that people would know is the McMillan Reservoir, which, you know, the reservoir is visible itself. And next to it, most people are aware, there was a treatment system that used to be -- that it looks like these bunkers that are set out there in a stack.
BROWNI've seen them. I've seen them.
HAWKINSThe water would flow through sand filters there, and the sand would have to be cleaned out underneath. Those are not in these -- the filters are no longer in use. We use a far more sophisticated -- but that's another place where someone might visibly see what has been part of the water system.
BROWNSo it's a really pretty complex system of reservoirs and pipes. And are there any pumps in the system? Surely, there have to be some.
HAWKINSThere's -- we have pump stations all over the city.
HAWKINSYou go across the Frederick Douglas Bridge, and you see there's a pump station right as you get on the Anacostia (unintelligible).
BROWNAnd do those fill the reservoirs, and then the water -- or fill the water tanks and towers?
HAWKINSYou've got it. That's the basic scheme.
HAWKINSThe pumps do more than that, but the basic idea is to keep the reservoirs and the storage systems filled. And then that's what's supplying water out to the city.
BROWNOK. So there are pumps, but they're isolated from your home so that you don't feel and hear that chugging and chunking.
BROWNYou just get water...
HAWKINSYou get water. You turn it on...
BROWN...old time gravity feed.
HAWKINS...feeds into your building.
HAWKINSAnd then, once it comes back to us, 'cause it goes right down the drain -- it doesn't disappear -- there's a whole another set of pipes. In fact, because we have a broader service area on the sewer side, we have 1,800 miles of sewage pipes, which is a huge -- we have -- actually, there's 47,000 valves that are turning off and on the system all over the city. And that also goes through pump stations and systems.
HAWKINSThe biggest pump station that people may have seen is, if you look at the baseball park with the river behind it and you turn to your left, we have a main pump station and an O Street pump station, beautiful big building is main. Those are main sewer pump stations that are pumping waste water across underneath Anacostia, which then by mostly gravity go down to the Blue Plains Treatment Plant.
BROWNI think one of the most interesting things about hearing this is that it brings me into touch with where this is coming from. I mean, you get up in the morning, you flip the tap on, and there it is. You know, you can get some water for your cup of coffee or whatever. And most people just really do not think about it. Can you tell us what sort of shape our system is in D.C.?
HAWKINSThere's a good and bad answer to that question.
HAWKINSElements of this -- fundamentally, it works well. We deliver clean, safe water to our customers every day. We take it back. There's parts of the system that are in spectacular shape. The Blue Plains Treatment Plant, that's all the southern tip. When you come across, you come in to D.C. from the south, that's the first thing you will see. It's the largest advanced wastewater treatment plant in the world and is award-winning.
HAWKINSIt's spectacular. It's state of the art. And it's -- billions of dollars are being invested there, giant projects going on at Blue Plains because it's the largest single discharge point to the Chesapeake Bay, the largest freshwater estuary in the world. So that's a huge environmental plant. So there are components of the system that are in great shape. We are delivering very good service. You mentioned in your introduction the critical point, and this is an issue that's true across the country.
HAWKINSThe distribution system, getting the water to the building and then taking it back, those pipes, those valves are quite old. And there's a lot of deferred maintenance in the system. We have -- the sinkhole that you mentioned in your introduction, that was a sinkhole of a five-foot egg-shaped sewer that had put in -- been put in in the 1890s. And by the time we realized there was a problem underneath Champlain Street at Kalorama, there was -- about the size of this room, the recording room we're sitting in -- that had completely worn away.
HAWKINSIt was put in over 100 years ago. And we have a lot of infrastructure in the city at that age, and lot of cities do.
BROWNRoger Lewis, what do think needs to happen?
LEWISWell, I mean, I think...
BROWNWith an infrastructure that old and that varied?
LEWISWell, let me preface in answering that. Let me preface this -- my remarks to something that I think is very important to link what we've just heard from -- excuse me, from George to the issue you mentioned earlier about smart growth.
LEWISWhat -- there's another part of the system that we need to be aware of, and that is -- you mentioned Potomac River, where we get the water. It's the watershed. I mean, where the water really begins is -- you know, rain falls on the surface of the Earth, and the Potomac watershed -- and you can draw a line. You can actually identify -- we can identify where that is. Obviously, that raises the question of what happens in the watershed. Are the things going on in the watershed from which water is flowing into the Potomac which we then treat and distribute...
BROWNWhich would affect our system.
LEWISWhich have a tremendous effect. Certainly, it's not -- we're in good shape here. There are lot of parts of the United States -- I don't mean to go outside of Washington -- where this is a very serious issue. But, in fact, within the Potomac River watershed, our land use policies, our behavior vis-à-vis, what we do about the retaining of water, stormwater, stormwater management within the watershed and the influence on that water by what we dump into it or keep out of it.
LEWISBut that actually has a downstream effect because if, for example, you're getting a tremendous amount of agricultural runoff, it means when that water gets to George's facilities, the treatment load is different than if the water is coming out of, you know, has been very -- has been cleaned naturally as in the aquifers, for example. Everybody, I think, understands there's water on the surface and water underground.
BROWNSo are you saying we're in fairly good shape comparatively...
BROWN...in terms of our watershed coming into D.C.?
LEWISI think -- I would answer the same way that George answered the question about the system. I mean, I think there are places where we have some serious problems.
LEWISAnd there are other places where local jurisdictions -- so much of this is determined locally and not regionally, as some of us would like it to be. There are places where there's some really threatening behavior, if you will. I mean, the -- the difference between the Potomac and the Anacostia, for example, the Anacostia watershed, we know there is still a serious problem there.
BROWNSo what do you think the biggest challenges are for the D.C. water system, and what are you proposing? What do you want to see happen?
LEWISWell, I think George said it. I mean, I think there's -- I think the network of treatment and distribution and then managing the waste system, moving -- remember we're -- there really are two things. You have to move -- to do something with the stormwater, which is different than sanitary sewage system. They certainly have to be in good working order, or you have health problems and other problems.
LEWISSo I think he had identified very well the number one challenge, partly because also fixing it -- the mediation required to make the system state of the art and performing properly -- huge investments. I mean, we're -- you know, we've got -- just one other footnote, I remember -- I think it was two years ago, three years ago, when the Society of Civil Engineers gave our country's infrastructure a D-minus, I believe it was, a D-minus.
HAWKINSA generous grade.
LEWISA generous -- yeah, I mean, the -- so it's a serious problem, unfortunately, because so much of it is invisible, the public isn't as aware of it as they might be.
BROWNGeorge, what needs to be done in the D.C. water system to make it sustainable for the next generation...
BROWN...and without getting too far into numbers...
BROWN...at the moment, what sort of costs are we looking at? First of all, though, let's find out what you -- you know, where are the worst problems, and what do we need to do about them?
HAWKINSThat's a fantastic question. And I actually would start with something separate from the system but connected so integrally to it, which is awareness of the customer base. I mean, just what you've said, again, to introduce -- and both of you have talked about -- is that it is hard to imagine a greater disparity between a piece of infrastructure that's more vital to society. You cannot have a community of people coming together without this. This is not an add-on. It's not something that's just convenient.
BROWNIt's not a luxury, not something you can cut.
HAWKINSIn areas of the world where they do not have clean water, either delivered on one end or cleaned on the other end, you have more people dying from water-borne illnesses than all the wars of the world. It is fundamental to civilization being able to survive as we collected together as a people. So you put its importance as primary. You can't get -- we couldn't be in this building today if you didn't have water and sewer.
HAWKINSYou can't get into building. So what jobs do we support? All of them 'cause there's no building, there's no job, there's no facility that can function without our service...
HAWKINS...compared to the lack of knowledge by the people who rely on it of the systems out there that deliver it. That's not their fault. That's -- I take, out of D.C. Water, it's our fault. We have got to tell our story better.
BROWNSo what's the story?
HAWKINSSo the story is -- and we're trying to do this in every way we can. We are revitalizing our communications with everybody and anybody who wants to talk to us about this service because that -- it lack -- yes, I could, and I will, outline in summary form the huge costs and needs that we have in the system. We'll never get to any of those if our public doesn't know about the needs, understand why we're doing the work and support us in the effort of raising the funds necessary to pay for them.
BROWNWell, when we...
HAWKINSAnd that's, first and foremost, is an awareness and understanding.
BROWNThat there is a need. We're going to take a brief break, and when we come back, let's hear about some of the specifics.
BROWNWhat are the strengths, and, in particular, what are the weak points and what's it going to take to fix them? I'm Paul Brown. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
BROWNWe're back. It's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown from NPR. With me, Roger Lewis, architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post, also a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park, and George Hawkins is general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, also a former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment.
BROWNWe're talking about infrastructure, in particular, right now, our water and sewer systems in the D.C. area, how well they are functioning, what they need. And we'd love to hear from you. Have you experienced some limitations in our water or sewer infrastructure? If you have, we'd love to hear about them. We'd also love, in particular, to know what you think should be done. Here's the number to call, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850, or you can email us. And the email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
BROWNAnd we have an email, as a matter of fact, gentlemen, Philadelphia -- and this is from Gary, who says, "Philadelphia is doing a lot of stormwater management with the focus on green infrastructure, and, as part of this effort, Philadelphia is trying to increase the fees that people, in particular, businesses pay for stormwater management. Now, they're effectively charging fees," he says, "based on the size of impervious surfaces. Is there any interest in doing something similar in the District?"
BROWNI want to come back to this in just a moment. Let's be thinking about that. But, George, before the break, I asked if we could find out little specifically about our water system in the D.C. area and where the biggest improvements need to come, what these might cost.
HAWKINSIt's a great question, and the scale of it is pretty significant. Our -- we have a 10-year capital program at D.C. Water. And we plan out 10 years in advance, and that is a $3.8 billion plan at the moment that we are running. And we run about $450 million operating budget each year, so combination -- 2013, we'll have about to $5- to $600 million in capital and almost $500 million on operating. It's a lot of money we're spending on the system. I would put the needs in several categories.
HAWKINSThe first category is where we're ramping up what we're doing. The average in the United States is one-half of 1 percent of the system -- the pipes, the valves, the pumps -- that are replaced in any given year. That's a 200-year replacement cycle. In D.C., three years ago, we were one-third of 1 percent, which means we had a 300-year replacement cycle.
BROWNWhich, I take it just from assumption, is not sustainable.
HAWKINSNo. That is nowhere near sustainable. That is where the D-minuses come from, and you had that on top of average water main of 77 years, average sewer line, probably 88 years. That's a 300-, 400-year replacement cycle. It's broken. What we've done at D.C. Water -- and I get great support from the board and the public we serve -- is we're tripling our capital programs, and we're now ramping up to 1 percent per year.
HAWKINSBut one of the critical needs is the fundamental pipes, the valves, the structures out in the streets. It's why you often see our trucks out there. If there's a water main break, people are angry. We understand why. As opposed to using operating and maintenance money to go out and put a Band-Aid on that pipe, we had to replace some of them so that they -- we get it up-to-date. So that's one of the great needs. It's a billion-dollar need on its own.
BROWNDo you work with the city council? What do you work with to get the funding to maintain our water system? And how far are you from a goal that you would like to see in order to make it sustainable for another generation?
HAWKINSThat's a great question. The funding mechanism for D.C. Water is through our rate-based system, and the rate-based system is a review that our board of directors undertakes.
BROWNLet me ask you a very simple and straightforward question.
BROWNAre those of us who are residents of D.C. not paying enough for our water service?
HAWKINSI would say at the moment, given our -- that you're -- no one in the country necessarily is paying what you might need to pay if we did a -- we ought to be even more than 1 percent. At some point, your replacement schedule is so great. We'd be tearing up roads all over the city, so there's some you don't go over. But we've under-priced this service for so long. We've had significant rate increases in the last three or four years, usually 5 to 10 percent every year to ramp up -- one quadrant of which is improving the system. There's two other areas that are causing us significant funds.
HAWKINSAnd most of us in the industry believe we're under-priced. I'll give you an example. The average single family home in Washington, D.C. pays this year about $65 a month for water and sewer. That's about $20 more than it was three years ago, so it's gone up significantly, and we don't minimize that. That is a challenge for people, many of whom are on fixed income or low income, although we have a whole program to support our low-income customers.
HAWKINSBut compare -- I compare that -- I get basic cable. I don't watch a lot of TV, but I get a basic cable package. I have cellphones. I have teenagers, so it's much higher, my electrical bill. That's -- my basic cable is $110. My cellphone is much higher than that, and my electricity is usually higher than that relative to other services we've been priced. Our customers, however, are used to what they're used to. So if you're used to paying $40 a month and don't realize, that's paying for 1,300 miles of pipes, pump stations, reservoirs, 1,800 miles, huge systems.
HAWKINSIf I don't know what the money's going for and I've always paid $40, then $60 seems too high. But if you have a sense of what it is we're doing, the gigantic system we are running and the level at which we're trying to improve it so we can continue to deliver service...
BROWNThen you may start to have an idea of why the cost...
HAWKINSCost is going up, and it will continue to go up.
BROWN...might appropriately be higher. OK. I'm with you there. If you are listening now and you're, you know, satisfied or not with your water bill, we'd like to hear from you, too, and find out what you think about what George Hawkins has just said that this basic resource may be under-priced in the District. Going back to this email, we were talking about stormwater management, and I want to find out a little bit about the fees that are charged and that Philadelphia is looking at to charge for impervious surfaces.
BROWNAnd while I'm at it, Roger, could you tell us a little about design elements? In the capturing of stormwater, how do you capture stormwater effectively from an architect's perspective before we go to this cost issue?
LEWISWell, the -- at some level, it's very simple. What -- when rain falls onto the surface of the earth, what you ideally would like to do is keep it where it falls as long as possible. I mean, it's -- this is not rocket science. As soon as you build an impervious surface -- a road, a sidewalk, a terrace, a roof -- the water falls on those surfaces, and it immediately runs off. Even if it's dead flat, it will run off. And so, historically, what's happened is we haven't had to worry very much about that that we've build all these impervious surfaces.
LEWISThe water runs off. It goes into catch basin or some kind of a catchment and into pipes, and then now you've got stormwater running through pipes. And, by the way, those pipes have to be very large because the volume of water in a heavy rainfall that -- what engineers do is they calculate the sort of the most typical worst condition. And so these pipes are very large, and they also deteriorate. So what happens if you can keep the water on a roof, with a green roof, a roof that has some capacity for storing the water, slowing it down...
BROWNAnd that would be, for example, a green roof maybe with a garden?
LEWISWell, however it's made, there are many ways to make them. But, looking at that specific component, essentially you build a green roof, including some material that will hold water. If you have a vegetated surface, both shrubbery trees and ground covers...
BROWNBut some way to slow the rainwater.
LEWISSlow the rainwater. You absorb the rainwater. You take -- if you build a sidewalk or a terrace that has -- that's porous, that's pervious instead of impervious, what happens is the water can go down. It can get into the ground. You're -- ideally, a lot of it gets into aquifer that's deep down in the ground and never does get into the pipes. That's the idea. The idea is to try and retain the water.
LEWISAnd in suburban areas, I'm sure a lot of the listeners have seen these depressions in the often dry, which are stormwater management retention basins, which, again, are meant to collect water during a heavy rain, hold it and let it go more slowly into the network -- the drainage network. So that's -- the idea is to keep the rain, keep the water -- the stormwater where it falls as much as possible.
BROWNWhere are developers on this? I mean, what you're describing are things that sound essential to me to creating good architecture that doesn't allow for flooding and all sort of things like that. But are there any rules that govern architecture in D.C. to enforce this sort of practice? And if there are, how do developers look at them? If there aren't, what are the reasons why they're not in place?
LEWISWell, D.C. has, in fact, put in place some new regulations. This is relatively recent stuff, by the way. This -- I mean, I built -- when I built my first project in D.C. 40 years ago, there were no rules, except you had to collect the roof -- rainwater runoff, put it immediately to pipes. You could not dump it onto the surface of the earth. Now, you have -- now, there are some regulations about trying to be more sustainable, in particular, dealing with stormwater.
LEWISAlthough still, there, you know, you're not -- you don't have to put on a green roof. I mean, that's -- there's -- in government buildings, I believe the regulations -- I haven't designed a government building recently, but I believe now GSA and the City of Washington are mandating, are requiring that buildings be more sustainable.
BROWNAnd, briefly, where are developers on this?
LEWISWell, developers play by the rules of the game. They -- they're happy to do it, assuming that they can pencil off their pro forma and the bottom line is reasonable.
BROWNBut there's not a lot of pushback they're dealing with?
LEWISNo. I think developers -- I think the public often misconstrues what developers are up to. They like to do -- they like to know what they're required to do in advance. As long as they know what's required, they can deal with it, so most developers will do the right thing, even if it's not required. For example, right now a lot of developers are willing to go for LEED ratings on their buildings, even though it may not be required, partly because it's a marketing (unintelligible).
BROWNAnd explain LEED for those people who haven't heard it.
LEWISI'm sorry. Leadership in environment and energy development.
BROWNSo, basically, green buildings?
LEWISGreen buildings and that -- there are a whole lot of things we don't need to get into that have nothing to do with infrastructure.
BROWNBut as far as the developers are -- they're doing what they need to do even if they're not always happy.
LEWISYes, more -- absolutely. And, in fact, in D.C. there's a lot -- a very high percentage of the buildings built in recent years are LEED-certified, either silver, gold or occasionally platinum -- very hard to get the platinum.
BROWNWell, let's go to the phones. We have Paul here. Paul, what's on your mind today? Paul, you there with us? OK. Doesn't look like it. OK, let's see if we can find Rachel here, also in Washington, D.C. Rachel, what's up? OK.
RACHEL...what you guys were talking about 10 minutes ago. My husband and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras about a year ago, and our project was water and sanitation. And we helped to see developing studies and design gravity-fed water systems for rural communities.
RACHELAnd I just wanted to comment on the need of the public to be educated on the importance of our water system as -- you know, as you were saying the most important public service. And as the United States in Honduras, you know, community members didn't want to pay more than 25 cents for their water per month, but that is comparable to the low price we pay here. And I would certainly be willing to pay more for my water just because I know that it's, you know, one of the most vital things we have to live our daily lives.
BROWNWell, thanks very much.
RACHELSo I just wanted to comment on that. And I think that this conversation is really important, and I hope that you're doing, you know, some marketing and public awareness for people who don't realize just how important water is.
BROWNThat message is for you, George Hawkins.
HAWKINSI wanted to thank you.
BROWNThanks, Rachel. Thanks so much, Rachel, for calling.
HAWKINSThank you, Rachel. I hope you're a customer of ours. We're delighted to have you and your perspective. I did want to mention that my view of the developers in this city is that they're excellent on these issues. We have a very progressive set of developers and on energy and water. If you go down to The Yards, which is being built along the Anacostia, you will see the sunken bioswales. In fact, when I was at Department of Environment, I negotiated the design of the parking lots for the baseball park.
HAWKINSAnd all of them flush to bioswales to infiltrate the water. That was a design element for all the baseball park parking lots. The specific question that the Internet request was about, I do want to inform the folks here listening is that, in fact, we do use that system.
BROWNIn other words, we -- are you charging some for stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces?
HAWKINSYes. There's actually two charges on our bill. When you get a bill from D.C. Water, there's a series of charges. There's a water rate. There's a sewer rate. But there's two that have -- what's called IAC. That stands for the impervious area charge. We are doing a gigantic project. You're exactly right, Roger. It's hard to imagine. Think about it like a stream. You look at a stream before a rainstorm, there's a little bit of water. Then after the rainstorm, the stream level rises 10, 15 feet, and it's rushing by.
HAWKINSThat's exactly what happens in our pipe system that collects stormwater. Most of the time, there's not much flow in that pipe. Then there's a storm, and all -- you watch all that rainwater...
BROWNAnd you need the full capacity, right?
HAWKINSMy gosh, that pipe, and it -- the stress that that puts on the system with that variation of flow that we're trying to manage. The question is can we contain that and -- because there is overflows. Those pipes are not big enough to control all of the stormwater and sewage that come into them in the area of the city called combined sewers. So we are building gigantic underground tunnels. They're the size of Metro tunnels.
HAWKINSThe first one is underneath the Anacostia River, 100 feet below grades, beneath the river, the size of Metro tunnel, 13 miles long, that all that overflow that would have gone to the river -- that's a combination of sewerage and rainwater.
BROWNWhere will it go now?
HAWKINSIt will go down to this giant tunnel, and it will be transported down to Blue Plains, the treatment plant, be pumped with enormous huge pumps, pumped up to the plant for treatment. That's better than the existing. But if we can do what Roger is talking about, which is essentially building nature back into the built environment containing rainwater, whether it be a green roof, a bioswale, a road itself with pervious pavers that, you know, water can sink into the road, then it won't go into our pipes. We don't have to build as big a tunnel, which is grey, unseen, and it greens the city at the same time.
BROWN...bioswale. I've never heard the word before. What is it?
HAWKINSA bioswale -- then I encourage people when they go to the baseball game, look at the park. All of those parking lots have them. The parking lots are tilted essentially so that the rainwater will flow off in a particular direction. And at the end of it, there is an indentation, like you see out in the suburbs, where the water can collect and infiltrate into the ground.
BROWNAnd that is a bioswale.
HAWKINSAnd that's a bioswale.
BROWNI like that. That's my new word of the day.
HAWKINSYou can plant native species. You can have all sorts of things (unintelligible) that.
BROWNGood. I mean, on that, let's talk to Paul here, though, in Washington. Let's go to the phone. And, Roger, we'll come back to you in just a moment. Roger's got his hand up here. He's desperate to say something. We'll soon find out. But let's hear from Paul first.
BROWNNot that desperate. OK. Paul, how are you today and what's up?
PAULGood. First, I want to say that I am -- I live in the combined sewer area in Ward 4 and am a ratepayer of George's and read Roger's writings and musings regularly. So thank you both for being on the show and for having a conversation between a utility director and an architect. That's a good start. What I would like to know -- what I was going to ask about is, are you using the current climate change data?
PAULBut what I really have been focused on now, having -- living in Ward 4 and seeing the redevelopment of Walter Reed and looking at other big sites is, could we challenge ourselves in the city to try to get off the grid in some of these big areas that we're redeveloping, like the Anacostia and Walter Reed, and set a goal with GSA and other agencies? I know some of this is being done to get off the grid on water and energy altogether and see how close we can get to that and be a learning laboratory for that.
BROWNWhat do we...
PAULWhat are we doing in that regard?
BROWNWhat do we think here? Either of you have some input on that?
LEWISWell, off the grid, I assume what...
LEWIS...he's talking about is not being connected to the systems, and that is using solar energy, for example, to generate electric power, finding water. I don't know whether he's talking about drilling wells. I mean, if you don't get...
PAULDrinking water, stormwater and wastewater altogether.
PAULThink about, you know, closed-loop reuse systems, like they have in Victoria and Vancouver and in other places around the globe.
LEWISWell, there's no question. I mean, we were talking about this earlier. For example, a lot of developments -- I've just written a set of design guidelines for a project out in Tysons Corner where the design guidelines do just what George and I were talking about. It says recycle the water. There's -- you can capture some of the water and -- that would ordinarily be wastewater -- we call it gray water -- and use that for -- other than potable water purposes. You can certainly capture -- harvest sunlight and generate some electricity.
LEWISThe problem is, if you're talking about anything of density in terms of development, you're not -- it's still very, very difficult, from a scientific and engineering point of view, to be completely off the grid. It's just -- it's not feasible at this point. I mean, I suppose the day might come when you can go to Best Buy and buy a three-by-three nuclear generator that will make all of the electricity...
BROWNBut, basically, you're saying for an entire city or municipality to get off the grid...
LEWISIt's very difficult. Let me add one other thing that I...
LEWISI think there's a psychological element to this that we haven't mentioned about having to do with water that differentiates it from electricity and phone service. And so the problem is that people see water as free. It comes down. It rains. It's there. You know, if you go back to the 19th century, I mean, most people's water came out of wells. You didn't pay -- other than drilling the well, it was a free commodity.
LEWISAnd I think there is still this mentality in this country, and certainly in this metropolitan area, that water shouldn't be more than a few bucks a week. I mean, after all, we don't...
BROWNYeah. How could you pay for water? Yeah. OK.
LEWISWe don't -- yeah. We just -- the rain falls. Why can't -- why is it so expensive?
BROWNBut we're in a different place right now with a much larger population. Thanks very much, Paul, for your call. We appreciate it. Let's go to Gene in Aspen Hill, Md. Gene, I think you probably have some pretty interesting questions on your mind here today.
GENEYes. Excuse me. I want to refer to the financing issue.
GENEAnd it seems to me, as I drive around Montgomery County, they threw stimulus money at fixing curbs and putting paint on streets and all that kind of stuff. And it seems to me the real problem was the waterlines. And why didn't they put the stimulus money, give it to WSSC and let them do something that's really useful for the citizens (unintelligible) in the area?
BROWNGeorge Hawkins, question for you. What's your answer to that? What do you know about it?
HAWKINSOK. That's a great question. And I -- there's so many great parts of this. And on -- to finish up on the grid question, we are seeing applications in the city for developments at the old convention center site. They're building cisterns in the basement of their parking lot where they'll take stormwater which, otherwise, would have come into our pipes.
HAWKINSIt will be instead be collected in cisterns in their design, pumped back out, get a little bit of treatment, so it gets some treatment. And then it's used to water all the green that they're going to plant. So they don't have to buy water from us on one end, and they're not sending as much water to us on the other end. It's not completely off the grid, but there's a lot that can be done that's beneficial economically and environmentally. And we're seeing...
BROWNI want to talk about some of those things, also, on the individual level as we get closer to the end of the hour here. But, once again, let's go back to Gene's question. Where went all the TARP money? We see it in street work. Is it being used to help improve our water system?
HAWKINSIt's a great question and in parallel with, I think, the absolute vital nature that we have to tell our story better to our customers. Whenever you hear -- and this is actually changed at The Washington Post when an infrastructure is being written about. Now you see more about water and wastewater. You've seen articles above the fold, as they say, about what we do. But, typically, you'd hear an infrastructure article and water and wastewater wouldn't be there.
BROWNNot even mentioned.
HAWKINSWe weren't in the conversation.
HAWKINSThere was some ARRA stimulus funds that went to Water and Sewer, in my judgment, nowhere near the scale of what it could be. The jobs that are created are local. You cannot do this work anywhere else. It's vital to every job that is also supported, and it's vital to public health. It's very hard that you could spend a dollar and get that many good outcomes.
BROWNSo, to you, this would have been the perfect expenditure of TARP money, but you saw very little of it going in.
HAWKINSWe saw some. Our view is that whenever -- generally, when there's infrastructure conversations -- and we don't mean -- yes. Do bridges need money? Absolutely. Do roads need money?
HAWKINSBut, relatively speaking, this is one of the single best dollars, I believe, the public can spend 'cause it's so directly tied to public health. It's so directly tied to the environment. And it supports every building and every job.
BROWNGene, I don't know whether we have an answer to your question. We've learned a little bit about what happened.
HAWKINSThere was some. There was some, Paul.
BROWNThere's been some but perhaps not as much. And, Gene, I appreciate your calling. Thanks for raising this issue with us. We're going to take a brief break here. We'll be right back. And stay with us as we discuss infrastructure, in particular the water and sewer systems in D.C., very essential services unseen often but extremely necessary and in need of a lot of help. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5.
BROWNIt's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown from NPR, sitting in for Kojo today. And with me this afternoon, Roger Lewis, architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post and George Hawkins, the general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. If you'd like to join the conversation, here's the number, 1-800-433-8850. Or you can email us at email@example.com.
BROWNAnd, you know, I'm wondering if we could chat for a moment, gentlemen, about -- given the vastness of the D.C. water system, its age, the number of repairs that you, George, have told us are probably needed and the budget, which is clearly inadequate to the need, what can we, as individual D.C. residents and homeowners, do to lessen the load on the water system? And, particularly, I'd love to hear from you on this, Roger, in terms of architecture, planning a home, what you have in terms of amenities around your home, driveways, you name it.
BROWNI'd like to know, what can we do from the structural standpoint? For example, if you're building a new house, what would you want to be thinking about to really be a good steward of water over the next 40 or 50 years that this house might be in use?
LEWISWell, we'll go back to the -- you can begin with the roof. Again, if you can -- in terms of stormwater management, if you put a green roof on a house and if you keep the water on your property by choices of plant material and soils and pervious paving, you're going to -- that's going to go a long way toward helping mitigate the problem with stormwater management. That -- I would say, on the water and sewer, the sanitary sewer side, the overall goal should be to reduce the amount of water that's consumed. And that -- we know what that involves. That's turning on faucets, flushing toilets...
BROWNTurning off faucets.
LEWISYes. Irrigation. For example, there's a link there, you know, there are -- I grew up in Houston, Texas. People thought nothing of turning on the hose, and the grass -- watering acres of grass. And no one gave it a second thought. You don't have to plant grass. There are other things -- you know, there are plant materials that you can plant that are -- that don't require a whole lot of water.
BROWNYou know, to that end, let's bring in Mark from Washington because I think Mark may have a comment here that dovetails exactly with what you're saying. Mark, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. MARK BUSCAINOHi. How are you? I'm Mark Buscaino with Casey Trees. George, how are you doing out there?
BROWNHi, Mark. Good.
BUSCAINOI wanted to speak a little bit about green infrastructure and its impacts. You've talked a lot about it, so I won't go into too much detail. But, George, you mentioned, you know, how do we get ratepayers excited and understanding about what's going on with WASA? And I think we need to take a reality pill. I mean, unless we have a 12-step program, people really don't want to talk about sewerage, nor do they want to talk about stormwater.
BUSCAINOBut what they want to talk about is green infrastructure. And, George, I don't have to sell you on this, and, Roger, I don't have to sell you either. But I think the District really needs to step back and say, what can we do to put in green infrastructure in a significant place for a significant -- in terms of many, many blocks where we can put this in, we can test it, we can see the impacts to the neighborhood and the community?
BUSCAINOWe know -- we have research data that shows not only do we get good storm water management, but we also have increased neighborhood cohesion. We have more social interaction. We have more retail activity when places are green. And so the low-impact development amenities that we're talking about here are not just in terms of stormwater. They're generalists, and we have to remember that because they bring so much to an area.
BUSCAINOSo let's think more about what they provide, not just to water control, and there are very good investments from that perspective. So it's something to really consider.
BROWNLet's get some reaction from you, Roger, on that.
LEWISWell, he mentioned low-impact development. I mean, that's...
BROWNThanks, Mark, for the call, by the way.
LEWISRight now, I would say almost all the planning that's being done by planning authorities and designers who are commissioned, architects and planners who are doing projects, low-impact development is very high on the agenda as part of the design goal, which encompasses all the things we've been talking about for the last 45 minutes.
LEWISI mean, I think that, in a way, what I think Mark was getting at is wouldn't it be great if there's some area that we know is either being redeveloped or being built anew that could maybe -- this is what I heard -- could become a model, could become a template to really demonstrate and bring to the fore, make evident to the public, what green infrastructure design and construction and operation can really do for us.
BROWNIs -- are there any developments in progress within D.C. that you're aware of, Roger, that at least go partway along that path?
LEWISWell, for example, there's a whole lot going on...
BROWNMaryland and Virginia, too, for that matter.
LEWISWell, let's talk about -- there's an area -- Fort Totten. Around Fort Totten, there's -- right now, there's a huge infrastructure rebuilding. They're redoing Riggs Road and putting in some very large pipes, which I assume George on some of these, if not all of them. But there's a whole lot of -- the real estate there that's been made ready for new development, I mean, that -- it's not a huge area, but it's also not so small that you couldn't do a demonstration of what's possible.
LEWISWhen you get outside of the city -- obviously, D.C. is limited. You mentioned McMillan Reservoir. That's a very controversial site, piece of real estate. They opened -- built a reservoir. There have been several proposals. Some people want it to be completely a park, but it's going to get developed. Eventually, it could be somewhat of a demonstration of what green infrastructure can do.
HAWKINSWhat I was going to mention is -- first, that was Mark Buscaino from Casey Trees, and they're superb at this. And, actually, a very good example of green development is their headquarters. They completely redesigned a building and a street, from the roof to the front, to the street itself within. He's exactly right. The reason these investments are so great for a homeowner or a business owner is the multiple benefits.
HAWKINSIf you can contain stormwater like they're doing a lot of developments and use it to water the green that you plant, that's less water that you buy from us, so you save money. Then you have more green on your building. Everybody wants to be in buildings with green. I want to walk down the side of the street where there's shade, not the one where it's the beating hot sun in the summer.
BROWNYou're baking under the sun, right.
HAWKINSIt's good for energy use. It's good for habitat. So the dollar that you spend on this -- and for an individual, one of the things I recommend is that at dcwater.com, our website, you can sign up. We were the first major city in the United States to have automatic metering that you hear for energy. We have that for water. So you, as a customer, can sign up and see your water use. And what we encourage our customers to do is look at your water use. You will see how much you're paying.
BROWNIt's kind of like watching your weight.
LEWISIt is. It is.
HAWKINSAnd then as you adopt the strategies that Roger is talking about, you can watch your water bill go down.
HAWKINSSo not only do you have a greener house, not only do you have a nicer place to live, you're saving cash money.
BROWNI've met a lot of people who drive hybrid cars, and they start to watch that fuel mileage meter now instead of the speedometer, and they just work to get their mileage up to 40, 50, 60 miles a gallon if they can.
BROWNAnd so you're saying you can do the same thing with a water bill. Let me ask a brief question...
BROWN...and then I want to go to the phones here. But is something as simple as putting in, for example, a gravel driveway, is that going to help your system, George?
BROWNWill that take some of the load off the stormwater system?
HAWKINSThe number of steps that you can take at a home to increase the amount of water that you contain -- for so long we thought of stormwater as a problem. So you channel it into a gutter, then to a pipe. You got it out to the street, to the storm drain and gone.
BROWNAnd you forget about it.
HAWKINSThen it's being treated as a problem.
HAWKINSIf you use it as an asset -- how can I collect it in a -- you could put a barrel at the end of your storm drain. It collects water. Then you use that to water your lawn. Guess what? You're not buying water from us.
BROWNAnd you're not sending water into the storm system.
HAWKINSAnd you're not sending water in the storm system.
BROWNNicholas from Silver Spring, we have just a minute. Can you give us your question pretty quickly?
NICHOLASGood afternoon, gentlemen. Lately, we've heard a lot on the Republican stump speeches about deregulation. So I have really two questions. First of all, how does deregulation -- how does regulation affect the bottom line for D.C.'s water customers? And then, secondly, how might deregulation, for better or for worse, affect D.C.'s water supply?
BROWNNicholas, thanks for the call.
HAWKINSRegulation is a huge issue. The largest set of projects that we do at D.C. Water -- the $2.6 billion tunnel project, a $950 million nitrogen removal project -- are dictated by regulatory requirements. Now, our view is that we're the -- we're a premier environmental organization, and we're going to do what it takes to protect the environment.
HAWKINSThere are questions raised about the cost-benefit of some of the investments we make in the hard infrastructure, this concrete work, versus how we could change the regulatory requirements to allow us to support more low-impact development. And that is, ultimately, partly a regulatory question. At the moment, we are required to build these huge tunnels. We are not permitted to invest in low-impact development. We actually want to change that rule to give us the opportunity to do what Mark and what so many -- and Roger -- so many people are talking about and invest in the city that way.
BROWNNow, you're not necessarily saying that there should be less regulation, but you're saying perhaps the regulations in place could be different or more flexible in some manner...
BROWN...to help you do a better job.
HAWKINSWe're not trying to duck our responsibilities.
HAWKINSWe'd like to spend our money wisely.
LEWISWell, just to add a footnote to that, for example, regulations -- I mean, zoning, most zoning codes have parking requirements. We now know that, in many cases, the amount of parking that's required is unreasonably high. You get rid of some of the parking requirements. What happens? Less pervious paving. I mean, it's all interconnected. This is a tissue, a network of interconnectivity that I think we understand a lot better than we used to: dealing with the environment, managing water and sewer, energy.
LEWISIt's all connected, so if you can get -- just taking that one thing. Get rid of some of the parking. Get people onto transit. You'll pave less of the Earth's surface.
HAWKINSIf I can add one real quick point. I know we've only a little time left...
BROWNSure, yeah. Go ahead, George.
HAWKINS...but one of the critical components of this that we're very aware of is that every one of these things we're talking about -- putting in different kinds of parking, putting in bioswales, redesigning homes -- take jobs. This is -- aside from all the other benefits we've talked about, these are local jobs by people who need them and that we can train them here in the city. Then they go on and do this work and maintain it.
BROWNSo you're looking at job creation.
HAWKINSIt's a great job creation possibility, absolutely.
BROWNIt also provides a fundamental service.
BROWNYou know, we had hoped to get past water and sewer systems in our discussion of infrastructure today. But we haven't managed to do that because it's such a big topic, and this is such a precious and absolutely essential commodity. So I want to thank you. Maybe we can continue this discussion down the road, or you'll do so with Kojo. Roger Lewis, architect and Shaping the City columnist with The Washington Post, and George Hawkins, general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. Thank you both so much for joining us.
BROWNThose of you who've called we couldn't get on the show, thank you for calling. We appreciate your hanging in, and we hope we'll have another talk like this down the road. I'm Paul Brown, and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.