Over the past 10 years, DC Water has become the harbinger of the modern water utility. It’s often unconventional approach to tackling age-old problems usually elicits one of two responses from other utility professionals. The first response is one of resignation — if only I had the budget that size permits, I’d be able to do similar things. And the second is one of awe — there’s no way I have the amount of gumption to convince regulators or customers that I have a better way.

Washington DC Dawn Monument – HDR,” Nicolas Raymond, 2014

In a recent interview with Bay Journal, recently retired DC Water CEO George Hawkins explains that “the conventional wisdom is to comply with orders, raise rates and less news is better.” But in many ways, DC Water has done the opposite. The utility has worked with regulators to modify orders. Rates have gone up but at the same time, the utility has worked hard to keep costs down. And long before it became cool to communicate with customers over social media, DC Water was loud — building their brand as dedicated public servants doing yeoman’s work for the good of their community.

One of the utility’s most successful ventures has been its Clean Rivers Project and its role in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. A $2.6 billion project has created a network of giant tunnels that store polluted stormwater and sewage underground until it can be treated at the Blue Plains WWTP, avoiding Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers during heavy rainfall. But alongside the 157 million gallon tunnel-system project, DC Water was able to work with the EPA to rewrite its consent decree, allowing cheaper green infrastructure projects, such as rain gardens and bioswales, to offset some of their CSO storage capacity needs.

Another example of utility-led innovation was DC Water’s adoption of the CAMBI thermal hydrolysis process at its Blue Plains plant.  The Cambi treatment optimizes the anaerobic digestion process, and the methane gas from the digester, is then fed to three large turbines to produce electricity and reduce energy costs.  Its $3.8 billion enhanced nitrogen removal system helps the plant outperform its Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals for nitrogen removal from wastewater, while further reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

If there is one thing to learn from DC Water it is the benefit of introducing an entrepreneurial spirit to your operations. Regardless of size, approaching your utility’s most pressing challenges from a different starting point, can initiate startling change.