Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly (PART-2)

By: Charles Duhigg (The New York Times, March 14, 2010)

In fact, after he had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987, he spent a few years helping companies apply for permits to pollute rivers and lakes. (At night — without his firm’s knowledge — he had a second career as a professional break dancer. He met his wife, a nurse, when he fell off a platform at a dance club and landed on his head.)


Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority can monitor flow from a pump station.
But he quickly became disenchanted with corporate law. He moved to the E.P.A., where he fought polluters, and then the White House, and eventually relocated his family to a farm in New Jersey where they shoveled the manure of 35 sheep and kept watch over 175 chickens, and Mr. Hawkins began running a series of environmental groups.

The mayor of Washington, Adrian M. Fenty, asked Mr. Hawkins to move to the city in 2007 to lead the Department of the Environment. He quickly became a prominent figure, admired for his ability to communicate with residents and lawmakers. When the Water and Sewer Authority needed a new leader, board members wanted someone familiar with public relations campaigns. Mr. Hawkins’s mandate was to persuade residents to pay for updating the city’s antiquated pipes.

At a meeting with board members last month, Mr. Hawkins pitched his radical solution. Clad in an agency uniform — his name on the breast and creases indicating it had been recently unfolded for the first time — Mr. Hawkins suggested raising water rates for the average resident by almost 17 percent, to about $60 a month per household. Over the coming six years, that rate would rise above $100.

With that additional money, Mr. Hawkins argued, the city could replace all of its pipes in 100 years. The previous budget would have replaced them in three centuries.

The board questioned him for hours. Others have attacked him for playing on false fears.

“This rate hike is outrageous,” said Jim Graham, a member of the city council. “Subway systems need repairs, and so do roads, but you don’t see fares or tolls skyrocketing. Providing inexpensive, reliable water is a fundamental obligation of government. If they can’t do that, they need to reform themselves, instead of just charging more.”

Similar battles have occurred around the nation. In Philadelphia, officials are set to start collecting $1.6 billion for programs to prevent rain water from overwhelming the sewer system, amid loud complaints. Communities surrounding Cleveland threatened to sue when the regional utility proposed charging homeowners for the water pollution running off their property. In central Florida, a $1.8 billion proposal to build a network of drinking water pipes has drawn organized protests.

“We’re relying on water systems built by our great-grandparents, and no one wants to pay for the decades we’ve spent ignoring them,” said Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a professor at Tufts University and a member of the E.P.A.’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council.

“There’s a lot of evidence that people are getting sick,” he added. “But because everything is out of sight, no one really understands how bad things have become.”

To bring those lapses into the light, Mr. Hawkins has become a cheerleader for rate increases. He has begun a media assault highlighting the city’s water woes. He has created a blog and a Facebook page that explain why pipes break. He regularly appears on newscasts and radio shows, and has filled a personal Web site with video clips of his appearances.

It’s an all-consuming job. Mr. Hawkins tries to show up at every major pipe break, no matter the hour. He often works late into the night, and for three years he has not lived with his wife and two teenage children, who remained in New Jersey.

“The kids really miss their father,” said his wife, Tamara. “When we take him to the train station after a visit, my daughter in particular will sometimes cry. He’s missing out on his kids’ childhoods.”

And even if Mr. Hawkins succeeds, the public might not realize it, or particularly care. Last month, the utility’s board approved Mr. Hawkins’s budget and started the process for raising rates. But even if the bigger budget reduces the frequency of water pipe breaks by half — a major accomplishment — many residents probably won’t notice. People tend to pay attention to water and sewer systems only when things go wrong.

“But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Hawkins said recently, in between a meeting with local environmentalists and rushing home to do paperwork in his small, spartan apartment, near a place where he was once mugged at gunpoint.

“This is the fight of our lifetimes,” he added. “Water is tied into everything we should care about. Someday, people are going to talk about our sewers with a real sense of pride.” Source

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