People expect delivery of water when the tap is turned in their bathrooms or kitchens, and removal of wastewater when the toilets are flushed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

And they don’t realize “what a miracle of modern civilization that is, or what it takes to deliver it. They never think where the water goes once it goes down the drain,” George Hawkins, chief executive officer for DC Water, told me in a sit-down interview.

George Hawkins

(photo courtesy of DC Water)

We discussed the challenges that water and wastewater utilities face with crumbling infrastructure and lack of revenue. We also discussed how utilities need to make the public aware of the “absolutely essential service” they deliver.

I was surprised to learn that the low water and sewer rates that publicly owned utilities charge go toward operating costs and not toward replacing the crumbling infrastructure. For that, utilities have to rely on the government. The revenue shortfall he told me was because cities have a significant low and fixed-income population who are unable to pay their water and sewer bills.

Hawkins discussed how DC Water has attempted to solve some of these challenges by using innovative techniques to not only improve the environment but to make the utility more sustainable.

He emphasized the need for utilities to partner with the private sector to improve the monitoring of water quality to prevent outbreaks of say Legionella contamination or harmful algae outbreaks. Hawkins said utilities don’t want handouts from the government. They want the government to help the fixed- and lower-income customers to pay the bills that make up the utilities revenue.

In late May, Hawkins participated in a panel discussion, which I moderated, as part of a Bloomberg-sponsored forum to explore challenges that cities face as they seek to capitalize on smart solutions to move past crises, such as the lead contamination crisis in the drinking water in Flint, Mich. At the time and subsequently, Hawkins said large utilities should serve as testing grounds for innovation, making them more affordable for smaller utilities.

Utilities also need to make the public aware that rate increases are stemming from the need to upgrade sewer drains and pipes and tunnels made at the turn of the last century.

 “Our goal is now to convince our customers that an investment in us is an investment in themselves,” Hawkins said. My interview for subscribers is available at Utilities Address Infrastructure, Funding: DC Water CEO.