The great water fiasco leaves Melrose thirsting

... is this a sign of hairier times to come?

by Don Norris

No, that's not gingerale in the photo above, and not a bottle of white wine either. But this was a familar scene in just about every home in Melrose during four harrowing days, last month.

What's in those bottles is water -- plain, pure, boiled water, for cooking, brushing one's teeth, drinking, washing hands -- for ingesting. Actually, this was the scene in thousands of homes of the 48 communities that make up metropolitan Boston water district. Disaster had hit the system.

On Saturday, May 1, the forever reliable underground water delivery system that services Boston and 47 other surrounding communites, failed. It broke and in a snap-crackle-and-pop, water gushed out of a ten-foot diameter pipe at an unbelievable rate. Millions of gallons of fresh, pure water from Quabbin Reservoir were literally dumped into the Charles River, and flowed out to sea.

The warning went out immediately, the governor got on TV and told the story: One link between segments of ten-foot-diameter pipe -- which runs some hundred miles underground from mid-Massachusetts to metropolitan Boston -- had broken. No fear, he said, except that the back-up ponds and lakes were not treated, and that we should not ingest any water directly from from our faucets. Boil it first, buy bottled stuff at the supermarket, but don't even wash your hands in faucet water.

The prognosis was that the fix would take a couple of weeks. People streamed out of their houses and scurried to get the precious pure, sweet water at the markets -- and soon it was all gone. The shelves were bare. Emergency signals went out, and we began importing bottled water from places called Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Advice from the State House told us to boil the faucet water, and then it would be okay. We heard later that some people simply ignored the official advice, and drank, bathed and brushed teeth with the suspect stuff -- right out of the tap. The newspapers (that great source of information) did not report any poisonings, so far.

Municipalities set up distribution points; we in Melrose were able to take jugs right off the trailer-trucks. Traffic jams clogged downtown, the Parkway was stopped up. Cars backed up for blocks in all directions. A furor developed when it was discovered that people from other towns were taking OUR jugs.

As it worked out, the break was near the surface, and, with super-human effort, it was fixed four days later. We were told to flush our domestic systems to rid any tainted water. Some did, some didn't, some gave it a token flush. Apparently no one got sick.

As the saying goes, there goes another couple of million down the drain. The break was bound to happen because (the  papers said) of faulty workmanship -- many, many years ago. But millions of residents of Greater Boston communities -- including Melrose -- learned a hard lesson. Coupled with the failed attempt to blow up Times Square in New York City, our fiasco taught us that nothing -- even the delivery of water -- should be taken for granted.

As a modern species, we are apparently not good examples. What with wars,  jealousies and inability to get along, now the people have to be concerned about such basic services as getting water delivered to our homes.

Oh, my.

June 4, 2010

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