- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) over its three years in existence has learned to be quick on its feet, proactive, strong, focused and willing to flex its muscles in the quest to provide quality service to its more than 2 million customers.WASA is a multijurisdictional regional utility that provides drinking water to more than 500,000 residential, commercial and governmental customers in the District of Columbia, and also collects and treats wastewater for 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland as well as Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia.WASA establishes rates, fees and other charges for all services provided by WASA. This revenue pays all of WASA's operating costs. The Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, with a capacity of 370 million gallons a day, is the largest advanced wastewater plant in the world. On the drinking-water side, WASA operates 1,200 miles of pipes, five pumping stations, five reservoirs, four elevated tanks and 27,000 valves and 8,700 hydrants to effectively distribute quality drinking water to our customers.When WASA's doors opened on Oct. 1, 1996, the nascent board of directors had in its hands a utility with few assets: No revenue, no bonds, no bond rating, and a spotty track record at best. Since then, WASA's board and management have presided over an extraordinary three-year turnaround in the affairs and operation of this utility. Providing the highest quality customer service to WASA's 2 million customers governs everything we do.Over the past three years, the board and management have identified critical services and activities needed to meet customer expectations and prioritized these services to focus on the most important activities in the near term.To that end, WASA:m Adopted industry best standards for collection of customer billings to ensure that all customers pay their fair share of the costs of providing utility services.m Implemented a program to significantly improve meter reading.m Embarked on a three-to-five year program to change all 130,000 water meters in the District of Columbia and scheduled testing of WASA's 3,500 largest meters (3 inches or greater) within a 10-month period.m Has made its fleet services comparable to or better than other major utilities.m Has already improved response time to customer service issues.m Is currently designing facilities to replace chlorine at the Blue Plains plant with sodium hypochlorite. This project is ahead of schedule implementation date is targeted for the end of 2002.It doesn't end there. WASA has reduced operating and maintenance costs in both fiscal year 1998 and 1999 budgets while delivering improved, cost-effective utility services.Just two weeks ago, WASA learned that it had earned a bond rating upgrade from A2 to A1 on more than $266 million of outstanding bonds. Other financial firms Fitch IBCA and Standard and Poor's, reflect Moody's upbeat assessment of WASA's future with an "A" and "A-" respectively. Fitch's upgrade took place last July and we expect Standard and Poor's to complete its review of our rating with positive results.While WASA is in excellent financial shape, this was not the case three years ago. In just over two years, we built our cash balances to over $90 million, fully funding our operating reserve that is necessary to maintain our high bond ratings. WASA has its own procurement system, a newly formed Human Resources Department and a new payroll system.I do not mean to suggest that we are an organization devoid of problems. But the dedication of our 1,200-plus employees and the vision of the management staff headed by General Manager Jerry N. Johnson, have helped WASA sidestep, leap over or avoid many hurdles.For example, we uncovered evidence of fraud in the Water Services department. We found out that some employees were doing private plumbing jobs on WASA time and using WASA materials. Management moved quickly to identify and to remove these employees. We also know that our customers see water mains and valves leak and have a concern about unaccounted-for water. Our capital improvement and preventive maintenance programs will help curtail this problem. We encourage our customers to call us whenever they see water leaking and fire hydrants open (the 24-hour emergency number 612-3400).
Security is another issue that we take very seriously. WASA consulted with the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Federal Protective Services of the General Services Administration, Bolling Air force Base, the Naval Research Laboratory and the Metropolitan Police Department on the establishment of a comprehensive security plan. WASA has surpassed the federal safe-drinking-water standard for 43 consecutive months. On a similar note, in February of this year, the District's drinking water finished in the top 20 from among more than 50 competitors in the annual International Water Tasting competition in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. On April 15, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and I cut the ribbon on a new trash netting system. The $300,000 pilot project is designed to remove as much as 90 percent of all trash and debris that flows out of a combined sewer outflow pipe.
WASA also has under way a combined sewer overflow control program and initiatives to address odor control at the Blue Plains plant and the Potomac Interceptor. Our employees and their family members are providing community service during their time off. Each summer, we hire approximately 30 students for the WASA Internship Program that began three years ago. We strive each day to do better than the day before. Our job, our only job, is to serve the public and put their concerns first and foremost.

Ron M. Linton is chairman of the board of directors of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

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