DC Water, Editorial, Infrastructure

Sometimes Progress Starts with Getting a Low Grade

12th St Water Main Break-Andy Le7- web

A C+ grade, not once but twice!  What parent would be happy with that outcome?

Yet, I am not talking about grades in school. I am referring to the recently released report card by the American Society of Civil ditoringineers (ASCE) scoring the infrastructure of Washington, DC. Drinking water infrastructure: C+.  Sewer infrastructure: C+.  ASCE described DC Water’s grade below:

“Notably, DC Water’s grades were better than several other sectors of infrastructure, and favorably compares for the overall grades the ASCE has given water infrastructure in the country (D) and the the overall GPA for the all the District’s infrastructure ( C-).”

Take a look at the full report here.

Many have asked me what I think about getting two C+’s after all the blood and treasure we have invested in our system over the seven years I have been at the helm of DC Water. The blood has been ours, Team Blue working at a fever pitch day and night to improve the services we offer DC. The treasure has been from our ratepayers, absorbing and paying rates that have generally doubled over my tenure.

My answer is fourfold.

First, I am grateful for any grade. We tend to work on what we can measure – because there is a record of what we are doing and accomplishing.  Many of us need to see and hear the progress we are making, or not, in comparison to a grade of some sort. A grade gives us both a sense of purpose and a measure of accomplishment.

The grading scheme from ASCE is powerful from this perspective. Almost every discussion about infrastructure includes references to the ASCE grades – usually using the unfortunate prevalence of bad grades as a proxy for a longer description of the state of the system. ASCE has credibility as a non-profit organization of mainly volunteer engineers who are focused on developing a credible, independent and meaningful grading scheme. I believe they have succeeded wildly, and their grades shine a bright light on a topic that is need of attention and measure, and are from an honest broker trying to bolster their reputation by allowing science and thorough analysis dominate the substance of the reviews.


Second, none of this means I am pleased with the grades. On one hand, they are by their nature general grades over infrastructure that is diverse, huge and complex. For example, we received a C+ for our sewer infrastructure. My guess is that this is an average of what would be a very high grade for Blue Plains (our water reclamation facility, broadly recognized as one of the finest in the world) and lower grades for some of our much older sewer pipes and pump stations. In that sense, a general grade does neither component justice. We worked hard with the ASCE engineers who developed the grades and still thought that some should have been higher. But we recognize that the ASCE had to come to their own conclusions, and that ultimately the process was professional, substantive and independent.

Third, I am not able to offer a view of the grades without context. No parent will want to see a C+ from a child unless prior performance was even worse. That is the context for DC Water.  Our prior grades would fall more in line with the overall national grade for water and wastewater infrastructure – which received a D in 2013.

Seven years ago I believe we were in a D range, and perhaps worse.  We had aging infrastructure and a program that only replaced .3% of it each year. We had no dedicated funding sources for infrastructure replacement and improvement. On that score, our Board of Directors has led us on a fundamental turnaround. Today we have tripled our replacement rate to 1% per year (double the national average of .5%) and have dedicated funding for both our largest sewer upgrade ever (the multi-billion dollar Clean Rivers Project) and for the capital program to replace drinking water infrastructure (now $40 million a year in perpetuity). To DC Water, therefore, we see C+ as a measure along our path toward achieving world class infrastructure, one that is heading resolutely in the right direction.

Finally, and ultimately, we are not satisfied. DC Water personnel, our Board, and none of our customers frankly, should accept average grades for the infrastructure that literally brings life-giving water into every home and business, and cleans it after our use before returning water to the environment. We are pleased at our progress, know that this moment is an important milestone along the way, but are also more determined that ever to continue our march toward delivering the finest world class water service to the people and all living organisms of the Washington, DC metropolitan region.

One Comment

  • Mr. Hawkins,

    I found your website in a round about way. An article led to another which led to another, then a NYT piece in 2010 called Toxic Waters — Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly. In there was a link to your site. I’ve read many articles now on your site.

    Thank you for your honesty and optimism in fixing the aging infrastructure of this country. We have too many people who care about things working, rather than understanding the importance of their workings. And for water delivery and removal to be so taken for granted has always concerned me. I will refer people to your site and am grateful to have found it as a resource.

    On a more human nature, if I may be so bold, I’m grateful to know that someone like you and many of your colleagues (as it seems) are realistically and compassionately invested in educating the public about the literal life-sustaining reality. You could just be fixing pipes, sitting in an office, but you and others are not. Thank you! And thanks for maintaining your site.



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