Globe Editorial

Water emergency plan works, building confidence for future

May 4, 2010

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A BREAK in a major water line Saturday had the potential to turn into a debacle for much of the Boston area. Yet by yesterday afternoon, word of the problem had spread smoothly, the boil-water order was being obeyed, and authorities were close to restoring clean water to 2 million customers. The crisis was mitigated, if not averted.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s rapid response should inspire confidence for the future. The pipe itself was repaired in less than 48 hours, all the more impressive because the breach occurred on a weekend. The authority also quickly reactivated an aqueduct that hadn’t been in service for decades, assuring sufficient water pressure for emergencies and tap water for homes, provided it was boiled.

This wasn’t just good luck. The rapid response, including efforts to inform the public of the emergency, was an outgrowth of a handful of post-9/11 emergency training sessions and tabletop exercises conducted by the water authority along with state and federal officials, as recently as last fall.

“We’ve trained this to death, and it paid off,’’ said Fred Laskey, executive director of the water authority.

That said, the MWRA still owes the public a thorough explanation and investigation into why this happened. The repair involved welding plate steel over the broken pipes. That sounds like a lot stronger way to make a connection than the original clamping mechanism, raising the question of why it wasn’t done that way at the beginning.

Unfortunately, it may be a long time before MWRA and state officials get to the bottom of the failure. A flaw in engineering or construction is a possible cause. Recent changes in the groundwater — the direct or indirect consequences of record spring storms — may also have played a role in the breach.

Key evidence, including a steel component of the failed coupling, washed away as nearly 8 million gallons of water an hour burst from the broken pipe Saturday into the Charles River, according to Laskey. So much sediment and debris resulted that about half the river was filled in near the vicinity of the breach.

“So much stuff washed away,’’ says Laskey. “We may never know.’’

For its own good and for the public’s, the authority must learn what it can from this incident. But citizens can take comfort in the agency’s ability to keep a massive break in the drinking water system from spiraling into a much larger problem.

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