Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Category: Environmental health ? Infrastructure ? Water pollution
Posted on: May 2, 2010 3:48 PM, by revere

Everyone has heard by now that there is a catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm not an oil expert, so I won't discuss this much here. There is a lot of information already in the media. I am quite familiar with drinking water issues, however, and over the weekend we received news of another catastrophic leak, this one affecting the Boston Metropolitan area. Several million people there are now under a "boil water" order because a section of steel pipe bringing water from its main surface supplies tens of miles to the west of Boston and surrounding communities blew out and the main water supply had to be shut down. The Reveres have family in the area so we were concerned (for the record, our water is not involved). Tthe whole story is a cautionary tale.

Provision of piped water to our cities that is safe to drink is one of the great public health triumphs of public health in the 20th century (filtration began in the late 19th century and disinfection with chlorine in the first decade of the 20th). In the 19th century, piped water was originally needed to fight fires but was also used for drinking. When connected up to toilets ("water closets") that in turn produced the need for domestic sewerage. It's a complicated world. When you do one thing it produces new problems that make you do another. And while provision of safe water is a great boon, the same system that distributes a healthful substance can also deliver harmful ones. Which brings us back to the plight of some 2 million plus people in the Boston area:
The crisis began around 10 a.m. [Saturday,May 1] when the pipe sprang a leak, which worsened throughout the afternoon and eventually cut off Greater Boston from the Quabbin Reservoir, where most of its water supply is stored. The MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] said it could continue supplying water by activating a backup system that began drawing water last night from the Sudbury Reservoir, and can also tap into the Weston and Spot Pond reservoirs if necessary. The backup water, which one official compared with ?untreated pond water,?? can be used for bathing and flushing toilets, but not for drinking or cooking.
Authorities said they were attempting to set up mobile units to chlorinate the backup water supply, but they cautioned that even so, the water from the backup system would not meet federal drinking water standards.
?This is everyone?s worst nightmare in the water industry,?? said Frederick A. Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. (Beth Daley, Michael Levenson, and Martin Finucane, Boston.com [Boston Globe])
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. The back-up supply is enough for any purpose -- flushing toilets, showering, bathing -- but if you want to drink it, cook with it or wash your salad with it, people are being advised to boil it first, letting it reach a roiling boil for at least a minute and then letting it cool naturally. Media are reporting that local stores are sold out of bottled water already.

What would happen if you drank the water? Probably nothing. The source supply is relatively clean, but now it's not being disinfected, so it is possible it could pick up enteric pathogens in sufficient quantity somewhere along the way to give someone a gastrointestinal illness. Unlikely, but possible. For most people this might produce some queasiness or cramps or even nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. The real concern is not this minor risk of discomfort or inconvenience but the more serious consequences for those with compromised immune systems, chronic illness or infants who are more vulnerable to dehydration or opportunistic infection. So the "boil water order" is from an abundance of caution, quite prudent when millions of people are being exposed.

Latest word reaching us from the scene is that now that the main supply has been shut off, the source of the rupture has been found and is not as serious as feared because it seems to have occurred at a joint where two pipes are coupled. This means the joint can be repaired with a new collar and welding rather than ordering and installing a custom made pipe, but to be sure they will have to pressure test it in case there is damage elsewhere in the 150 feet of conduit not easily visible. People will be boiling water at least for days. For their sake I hope it's not weeks, which is possible, although less likely if it's a failed coupling.

How can such a critical system be so vulnerable to failure? It's a typical infrastructure problem. Boston is in the process of building a full fledged back-up system but it won't be completed for 3 or 4 more years. The failed pipe is only 7 years old, so the chance of this kind of catastrophic failure didn't seem likely. If it had happened 6 years from now, there would have been no need for a boil water order. But it happened, now. The worst case scenario did occur.

Everybody complains about taxes but the folks around Boston are now incurring costs much greater than any tax or water rate increase. Restaurants and businesses were closed as a result of this and all that bottled water is enormously more expensive than tap water (by a factor of about a thousand; it's more expensive than gasoline on a volume basis), not to mention the energy costs of boiling more water.

You not only get what you pay for, but you often pay for what you don't get.