On a sweltering summer day in late June in Washington, D.C., a crowd gathered to watch the christening of a new tunnel boring machine, which will help dig the largest and final segment of the Anacostia River Tunnel System. The 13.1-mile-long system -- to be completed in 2023 -- is part of DC Water’s $2.7-billion effort to comply with the Clean Water Act and will capture 98 percent of any sewage overflows into the river.
The tunnel system was the brainchild of DC Water’s former chief executive and general manager, George Hawkins, who stepped down in late 2017. Hawkins was widely lauded during his eight-year tenure for reviving the water utility’s reputation, prioritizing environmental stewardship and turning the utility into a hotbed of innovation. (He was honored by Governing in 2014 as a Public Official of the Year.)
The always upbeat GM rarely wore a suit, instead donning a white button-down with the utility’s logo and a pair of khakis. His achievements included rebranding the agency, then known as the Washington Water and Sewer Authority, as DC Water; issuing the first-ever 100-year bond and first-ever environmental impact bond to finance the construction of green infrastructure; converting human waste into power and selling the leftover product as a fertilizer; and starting Blue Drop, a nonprofit offshoot of the utility. Hawkins created it to come up with ways to market products and services offered by the utility, such as the sewer thermal system that will be used to heat and cool the agency’s new offices.
In short, David Gadis, DC Water’s new chief executive and general manager, has big shoes to fill -- and he knows it. When it comes to innovation, Gadis says, “George did a fantastic job. The first thing to do is pick up where the former CEOs left us. This is not a turnaround utility; it’s the gold standard. It’s a utility that a number of others envy and revere.”
The 56-year-old, who prefers a suit and tie, is steeped in the ins and outs of operations. He grew up working summers at the water utility in Indianapolis, painting fire hydrants and digging up broken water mains. After graduating college, where he briefly entertained the idea of becoming a TV or radio broadcaster, Gadis found himself back in Indianapolis employed at the water utility.
Gadis started at the bottom and ultimately worked his way to the top. As chief executive and president of Veolia Water Indianapolis, he helped transform the utility into an efficient and cost-effective operation. He says that one of the things he is most proud of is stabilizing rates during his tenure. “Rates were getting very high,” he says. “Citizens were complaining, so we got more efficient as a utility and there was no rate change for five years.”
That experience will no doubt come in handy at DC Water, where rates have increased steadily over the past eight years. Bringing increases under control is in fact one of Gadis’ primary goals, which he’ll focus on under an initiative called the 20x20x20 challenge -- identifying $20 million in savings and $20 million in non-ratepayer revenue by 2020.
If anyone can identify $20 million in savings, it’s Gadis. After Indianapolis, he moved to Boston where he worked for the private water company Veolia at its North American headquarters. As an executive vice president, he was focused on advising city officials on how to improve their utility infrastructure and save on operating costs. His familiarity with best practices will help him do this in D.C., as well as deal with issues that face almost every water utility these days: aging infrastructure, human capital, resiliency and an increasingly sophisicated technology threat. “It’s not just main breaks and storms,” he says. “There’s the cyber side of it, too.”
But all this focus on operations doesn’t mean that Gadis isn’t thinking big. He wants to keep the culture of innovation and environmental stewardship thriving. “DC Water has one of the greatest brands in the industry,” he says. “I’m looking to do some things that will move the utility forward.”