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Water is Life

PEI Visiting Professor George Hawkins ’83 Promotes Sustainability as Head of The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

“I’ve loved every job I’ve had, but this has been the most rewarding, exciting and fascinating work of my career— even if also a huge challenge on a daily basis.”

— George Hawkins ’83

You see it, and you know you are in DC,” explains George Hawkins ’83, General Manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) and a Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) visiting faculty member since 1999. “Driving north from Maryland into DC, people know they’ve arrived when they see our logo—a 7-foot solar-powered water drop that lights up our plant.”

The water-drop logo and the new tagline “Water is Life” symbolize DC Water’s recognition that water is a critical environmental resource and that the public needs to understand what it takes to deliver clean water to the tap every minute of every day, and then cleanse it once we have used it. DC Water, and other utilities and companies in the field, need to emphasize their environmental mission to steward water responsibly. George Hawkins explains, “DC Water’s goal is similar to PEI’s: how can we use our skills and knowledge to have the most impact on an environmental cause we care about? DC Water represents an enormous public investment; without it the city of Washington, DC—or any city—does not function. Access to a clean, constant water supply supports every single job, every single life, as does removing contaminants and then recycling that water back into the environment after people use it. We provide a fundamental, extraordinary service to human civilization.”

DC Water purchases water that is removed from the Potomac River at Great Falls and treated by a federal agency before delivering it to the entire city. After use it is recaptured by DC Water’s sewer system and taken to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest advanced wastewater treatment (or water recycling) plant in the world. There, all the waste humans have added, including soap from showering, food and oils from cooking, fertilizer from plants, and solid waste, etc., is removed. The water is then returned to the Potomac. Providing this service involves solving many challenging environmental problems and developing new, cutting-edge technologies.

Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant

As General Manager, Hawkins fully enjoys this challenge. “DC Water delivers life-giving water and removes dangerous pollutants through a vast, complicated and aging infrastructure system—almost entirely hidden from the people we serve. Yet DC Water and most utilities are considered polluters by the public, and are not well known for their customer service or technical innovation. I thought the best way to help change and improve this industry is to join DC Water and lead a transformation from the inside. I’ve loved every job I’ve had, but this has been the most rewarding, exciting and fascinating work of my career—even if also a huge challenge on a daily basis. When you run a utility, you are always connecting theory and research to what works. DC Water operates its own research department, we have our own labs, we routinely hire outside experts, and we have a wonderful staff, all of whom are connected to and committed to actual, concrete improvements to the environment. Someone has to translate grand environmental policy goals into the deliverables we seek. DC Water does this.”

Hawkins graduated from Princeton in 1983 and Harvard Law School in 1987, and began his career as an environmental lawyer for the Boston firm of Ropes & Gray. He then became a federal enforcement lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office in Boston, and ever since has held a variety of positions in the environmental field. Prior to DC Water, Hawkins served as: Director of the District Department of the Environment in Washington, DC, where he regulated all environmental issues for the city, including DC Water; Executive Director of New Jersey Future in Trenton, planning smart growth strategies for New Jersey; and Executive Director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association in Pennington, NJ, advocating for land development and management practices that protect vital water resources, including a historic battle over a proposal to extend sewer service from the Trenton Sewer Authority into the countryside.

Blue Plains Advanced

Hawkins also devotes time helping to develop the next generation of environmental leaders by teaching PEI’s Environmental Studies course “ENV 310: Environmental Law and Moot Court.” He has many goals for the course, one of which is to demonstrate to undergraduates how employing policy and theoretical knowledge to a practical outcome, like working for a utility, is great environmental career. “I encourage all my students to consider a ‘boots on the ground’ job where you use knowledge, experience and ideas to directly improve the environment. We have plenty of theory and ideas, but precious few who dig in and drive fundamental, practical change in the field,” he explained.

“Princeton is educating the next generation of leaders. Teaching a class at Princeton allows me to work with very gifted students and help them, and me, see the world differently.”

— George Hawkins ’83

While he admits his career path, including working for a utility, is probably not a typical one for Princeton graduates, he explains, “One of my goals for the class is to make my students aware that there is a whole world out there for lawyers. The analytical skills that are taught in law school, combined with the ability to persuade, are golden attributes in the working world. You can use these skills, along with legal knowledge, to support and fundamentally change the environment and the human condition by working for a non-profit, government agency or a utility.”

To translate this conviction into real change, Hawkins is spearheading many innovative environmental initiatives. DC water recently identified $4 billion of long-term capital projects, in concert with more than $400 million in annual operating expenditures. He has led the remarkable effort to raise the necessary support and funds from the public to make the projects a reality, and he has presented these ideas to Congress to obtain support. “All our efforts to serve our customers are founded on the reality that we need support for the inevitable rate increases,” George notes. For example, the average residential customer will be charged an additional $8.00 a month beginning October 1, 2010. A few of these long-term projects include:

  • Eliminating dead zones in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay by removing nitrogen from wastewater. DC Water created a nitrogen-removal technology (it has applied for a patent), and are now refining it to meet even more stringent nitrogen reduction goals by 2015.
  • Implementing new technology to turn biosolids into energy by building digesters, generating enough renewable energy to power 26,000 homes—although all will be used by DC Water itself. The proposed CAMBI digester will be the first installation of its kind in the United States and the largest in the world.
  • Using biosolids as a resource by extracting phosphorous, nitrogen, and ammonia—which are used in products people already buy—from the waste they collect and selling it. This will ensure that everything DC Water produces is used wisely.
  • Building a tunnel to capture sewer overflow during torrential rainstorms, so the combination of storm water and untreated wastewater does not end up in the Potomac, Anacostia or Rock Creek. The tunnel will catch and hold the excess water until the storm abates and they can pump the water out of the tunnel and back to pipes so it can be sent for treatment.
  • Looking into the possibility of capturing rain right off residential roofs, in rain-capture planters, or in rain gardens, or using porous pavement so rainwater sinks into the ground directly where it hits. These changes will also help offset storm runoff, and simultaneously create non-exportable green jobs.

DC Water Crews repair broken line

Another one of Hawkins’ goals for the course is providing undergraduates with a taste of a career in environmental law. “I teach undergraduates how to present cases with written analytical firepower and with a practiced, polished, structured verbal presentation. Students take turns as the plaintiff and the defendant on historic, landmark environmental law cases, defending their positions to a jury of peers (their classmates) whether they personally believe in the argument or not. It’s a one semester class, but it’s an important window into this world.

“Princeton is educating the next generation of leaders. Teaching a class at Princeton allows me to work with very gifted students and help them, and me, see the world differently. If they choose a career as business leaders, they can make environmental issues a priority at the places they work. I want students to think about service as a worthy pursuit and I believe it is incumbent upon everyone to build that into their lives.”

It is Hawkins’ belief that DC Water’s service practices and many environmental innovations and initiatives could contribute to the entire nation’s sustainability goals. As he explains, “What we are seeking to do in Washington DC could be a template for every community, as the issues we have are not unique problems or opportunities. The opportunities in this field are fundamentally unlimited because DC Water does everything – and it all comes together in this sector.”