I was honored to speak on behalf of the public water sector in the Water Leaders session at the WEFTEC® 2012 conference. The following are excerpts from my comments about the “lucky seven” principles that I believe should guide the future of the water sector.
1. Pride. Back when I was an enforcement lawyer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or running environmental nonprofits in New Jersey, or even running the District of Columbia Department of the Environment that regulates DC Water in part, I thought of our sector as polluters. I think regulators and the public still see us this way, too, and the media often follow right along. Yet there has been no instance in which I have been more wrong! Treatment plants don’t generate the pollution that is coming into our facilities — people do. Almost every action that requires water generates used water thereafter. We take this water and cleanse it on everyone’s behalf. In fact, we clear out more trash, remove more pollutants, clean more water, and protect the lives of more people — and every other living organism — than anyone else. We should remember this reality and shout it from the mountaintops to anyone who will listen. A healthy civilization rests on our broad shoulders, and we should feel enormous pride in the service we deliver.
2. Inside/outside game. Our future rests on our ability to raise funds, which depends on our ability to persuade a skeptical public how vital our services are to their everyday lives. No longer can we avoid publicity. Today, we need savvy logos and taglines and aggressive social media campaigns in addition to old-fashioned outreach. We must be a friendly, customer-oriented enterprise that is proactive about telling our positive stories, using each mishap as a teaching moment. This “outside” game must be matched with an equally ambitious “inside” game — incorporating just-in-time inventory, predictive maintenance, and comprehensive asset management into our operations. As our customers get to know us better, they also need to know we are using every one of their dollars as if it were our last — increasing efficiency and delivering better service, even as we seek more funds to do necessary work. On its own, an outside game may seem to be public relations without substance, and an inside game can be unknown and unappreciated. But the combination of the two is dynamite.
3. Customer orientation.
We should “own” the drinking water market. Yet we have allowed the private bottled-water industry to essentially clean our clock. Bottled water may be the appropriate choice in certain circumstances, but as a regular choice for drinking, there is no evidence that bottled water is safer or better tasting. And it usually costs hundreds of times more than public water and carries enormous environmental costs. At DC Water, we are fighting back to regain the trust of our customers in every imaginable way, from hosting blind tasting competitions all over the city (so far, more than 60% of the tasters favored D.C. tap water or could not tell the different between tap water and bottled water) to sponsoring the TapIT app that identifies hundreds of establishments in our region where residents can refill a reusable water bottle for free. We find that our customers are completely open to our story and are happy to discover that a safe, good-tasting option also will save them lots of money. Imagine the power of this effort if every drinking water utility were doing the same across the country.
Water-sector professionals are some of the most creative problem-solvers I have known. But we often are not the most entrepreneurial in our problem-solving, even though our ratepayers are much like shareholders who need to see a return on their investment. We need to capture some of the advances we have developed and turn them into commercial products, which could help fund a continuous stream of research and innovations, and perhaps generate enough revenue to reduce the pressure on rate increases. For instance, at DC Water, we developed software that lets customers know when their water use spikes. It has been a huge success, yet we never considered whether we should license the software and get it on the market. I appreciate that one of the hallmarks of the water sector is the help and support we give our compatriots in the field free of charge. But we can strengthen this attribute while also thoughtfully considering what specific technological devices or approaches could be monetized. Private firms already do this on a regular basis, often with ideas and concepts learned at our public facilities.\
In the private sector, there is constant activity around mergers and acquisitions, as well as divestments and spinoffs. Tremendous attention is paid to where economies of scale can be realized or specialist performance can be attained. We need to consider these same issues in the public arena. Are there times when we should merge smaller utilities and divide larger ones? Do we all need billing departments, customer service centers, and public relations outfits, or can those of us who are good at one specialty perform the task for another at a rate that allows one enterprise to earn and another to save? For example, the mammoth Blue Plains facility serves a retail customer base in Washington, D.C., and also provides wholesale service through municipalities and utilities in Maryland and Virginia. Through economies of scale, ratepayers in the district and the suburbs save money by allowing regional service — the cost of treatment at Blue Plains is about half the average per-gallon cost in the U.S. To save ratepayer funds and deliver better service at the same time, we need to restlessly search for those who might be able to do something we are doing now better and cheaper than we can do it ourselves.
6. Gray and green.
Much has been written about the potential change from old-fashioned “gray” infrastructure to the newish “green” infrastructure. Of course, those of us in the water sector know that it is not one approach that will win out but rather a wise combination of both. We always will need water and sewer mains, valves, pumps, treatment cells, and all the rest. We need to focus relentlessly on analyzing and improving this infrastructure, because it is the core of how we serve our customers for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the green infrastructure revolution offers tremendous opportunity as well, mostly in the multiple benefits that can be derived. Not only can we achieve improvements to water quality, but we also can transform neighborhoods, reduce energy use, spur local and ongoing job creation for implementation and maintenance, and importantly, build structures that people can see and enjoy in their daily lives. Similarly, we can transform our facilities into “green factories” — enabling us to take the “enriched” water that comes to us and use it to generate power, mine nutrients, and develop products for soil enrichment. EPA has never been more interested and open to these possibilities, and therefore is willing to offer some flexibility to help us get there. We need to embrace this opportunity to build a future that is both green and gray, and demonstrates the best of both.
We cannot foresee what the future holds, but we can build our organizations to encourage our employees to improve themselves continually, seek new ideas, and be open to the learning that comes from an occasional failure as much as a great success. There are those who insist we must simply move fast in this world, but this message is not quite right. General Custer moved fast all the time. Yet moving fast without always learning and employing some wisdom and judgment along the way can be more disastrous than not moving at all. I believe the water sector is full of wisdom and experience, which, when tied to a continuous and robust desire to learn, is perhaps the most profoundly powerful attribute to ensure our current and future success.
George S. Hawkins is general manager of DC Water (Washington, D.C.).