'Water is Leverage'
January 11, 2019

The White House is largely empty as the partial government shutdown hits Day 20 — only 156 of the Executive Mansion's 359 full-time employees are allowed to show up for work. Secret Service agents are working without pay, desks of furloughed employees sit empty, and "the White House has stopped paying its water bill," The New York Times reports. "With paychecks failing to fatten the bank accounts of some 800,000 federal workers, the pain of this partial shutdown bit into all corners of America — even the White House, where there is often very little sympathy for those whose job it is to keep Washington running."

It is DC Water's job to keep the water running, and on Jan. 2, the Treasury Department informed the D.C.-area water utility that its largest customer — the federal government — would pay only $11.5 million of its $16.5 million quarterly water bill because of the shutdown. This $5 million past-due bill "brings up an interesting question," DC Water chairman Tommy Wells said at a recent board meeting. "Is there a time from nonpayment when we cut someone's water off?" A second board member asked, "1600 Pennsylvania Ave., is that what you're talking about?" There was laughter, WAMU reports. But the answer is yes, after 30 days.

"Conceivably, DC Water can shut off service for nonpayment to any customer," spokesperson Vincent Morris told WAMU. DC Water knows that this particular customer, the federal General Services Administration, is good for the money, Morris said, but he agreed that using the threat of a water shutoff to force a government-opening agreement is "an interesting idea." "Water is leverage," Morris noted. "No one wants to go without it." In a follow-up story, WAMU noted that while DC Water owns the pipes, the Army Corps of Engineers owns the treatment plant, so the federal government could, theoretically, cut off the water for the entire D.C. area — which is also leverage.

In any case, the discussion was mostly hypothetical. "We are not turning off water to the White House," Morris told The New York Times on Thursday. Peter Weber

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