George Hawkins doesn’t come across as the head of one of the largest, most respected and most innovative water utilities in the world. That’s because Hawkins, the general manager of D.C. Water, isn’t a suit-and-tie kind of guy. He wears the utility uniform -- white button-down with the utility’s logo, khakis, steel-toed boots -- everywhere he goes, whether he’s on a job site or testifying before Congress.
It’s a symbol of just how dedicated Hawkins has been since he took charge of the troubled water agency five years ago. When he was named to the post in September 2009, the department suffered from a bruised reputation. A lead-pipe contamination scandal in the early 2000s put the city in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. And the district’s antiquated water and sewer system -- some of the pipes were installed when Abraham Lincoln was president -- wasn’t sufficient to handle the needs of a growing city in the 21st century.
Hawkins started by rebranding the wonky District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority as D.C. Water, and slapping a new consumer-friendly tag line -- “Water is life” -- on every possible building, truck and piece of equipment owned by the department. But he’s done much more than rebrand the agency. He’s completely transformed it. To help ease flooding and sewage overflow, the district last year began construction of a 13-mile-long, $2.6 billion tunnel system beneath the city. As part of the project, the agency is also installing green infrastructure -- green roofs, porous pavement and rain gardens -- throughout the city to capture stormwater runoff. To help fund the project, D.C. Water issued a 100-year, $350 million green bond. It’s the first time a so-called “century bond” has been issued by a municipal utility in the U.S.
D.C. already is home to the world’s largest advanced wastewater treatment plant; Hawkins now wants to make it one of the greenest. Next month D.C. Water will begin operating a $400 million project to convert sewage biosolids into electricity using a new technology that has never been implemented in North America. It is expected to cut the treatment plant’s carbon footprint by one-third, saving D.C. Water $10 million annually.
“He is a game-changing general manager,” says David LaFrance, executive director of the American Water Works Association. Hawkins is known coast to coast as a leader in water management in part because “he understands how to relate to people in their everyday lives,” LaFrance says. “He does a lot to promote the value of water and water service.”
For Hawkins, who previously ran the D.C. Department of the Environment and has no prior experience with a utility, D.C. Water offers a chance to help change the lives of residents. “I’ve always been happiest,” he says, “when I am connected to something I know is making a difference.” -- By Elizabeth Daigneau
Read about the rest of the Public Officials of the Year here.