The Awesome, Humbling Challenge
March 16, 2011
George S. Hawkins
General Manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water)
It’s 7:30 a.m. in the District of Columbia. A newborn child opens her eyes for the first time at United Medical Center, east of the Anacostia River. A visitor from Wichita brushes her teeth, in a hotel room high above the museums and monuments that will capture her imagination for the rest of her stay. And the President of the United States strums his fingers on his desk, listening to his key advisers on the challenges of the hours ahead.
These are three very different starts to the same day. But what all three people have in common, along with some 16 million others every year, is that none of them could start their days without the life-giving service we provide.
Water is life. And to be sure, throughout history and around the world, lives have been lost by the millions for lack of access to clean water and sanitation. In the United States, most of us are fortunate to have both.
In fact, the reliability and relatively low cost of what we provide – especially as compared to other utilities – might give the impression that the water business presents no real cause for public concern. This is far from the case.
At the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), I preside over a 1,000-strong workforce. We are charged with maintaining and upgrading a labyrinthine underground system of pipes and valves – many of which predate even our grandparents – that is the subject of little thought by most until something goes wrong.
To maintain this network in the face of economic pressures, declining consumption, stricter environmental mandates and a customer base that may be unfamiliar or even mistrustful is an awesome, humbling challenge. It is also the job of a lifetime.
Every two minutes of every day, somewhere in the United States, a water main breaks. We are far from immune here in the District, with a median pipe age of 75 years. Roughly speaking, about 120 miles of our system went into the ground before 1900, with another three miles or so predating the Civil War! While we will always have the funding to respond to main breaks, and will always work to restore services and surfaces with great speed, we face an uphill battle with a water system that is only getting older. These pipes need to be replaced, not repaired again and again.
This year, the Board is again weighing the difficult choice to raise rates – the average homeowner in the District would see his or her water and sewer bill rise from $60.29 to $66.79. No increase in rates is a welcome one, especially in trying economic times. But the cost of maintaining and replacing our aging infrastructure continues to rise, while federal funding in this area is actually decreasing. We have tripled the rate of our water main replacement program in the coming year, while aggressively pursuing federal investment with our regional congressional delegation and national industry partners.
We’ve also changed the way we interact with our customers. We have a new name and logo for visibility, and are reaching out to our audience across multiple media platforms – including this one. To learn more about our work, please visit us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn, and at www.dcwater.com.
- Healthy Dialogues, March 2011: Water
- Voice of the Public Official: Delivering Urban Water and Sanitation Services for All
- Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge