Janet Wu

7 things the water crisis taught me

By Janet Wu
May 8, 2010

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Now that we’re safely sipping from the tap, it’s time to look back at our water apocalypse. A crisis can teach a person a lot, about limits, and about a will to survive. Here’s what I learned.

1. We’re Lucky
Inland water is abundant here in Massachusetts. Just look at our lakes, ponds and rivers. When the mother-pipe blew, the MWRA was able to switch our source to other reservoirs. Water pressure was never lost and no one’s tap ever ran dry. What happens when this kind of accident occurs in a place like Arizona? Do they poach water from another state? And at what cost?

We have plenty of water so don’t know what it’s like to conserve it. I remember adapting to 1minute showers when I lived in drout prone California, where watering your lawn could be a legal offense.

In a nutshell, we are water spoiled.

2. We’re Very Lucky
The crisis makes you think about the estimated billion people in the world who don’t have access to clean water. I think again about the kids in Africa who walk miles a day for water that still makes them sick. During the water crisis, I felt panicked and distrustful about the water coming into my home. Despite being told the water was safe for bathing, I was nervous about taking a shower. Several friends resorted to sponge-bathing. How lucky we are that even our back-up water supply is clean enough that boiling makes it safe to drink. Think about the rest of the world and think twice about complaining.

3. We’re Babies
During those four days, our happiness and well-being took a collective nosedive. There was ranting and raving about the injustice of it all, and the terrible toll.

Despite raw nerves, we never became Mad Max, thundering across the desert in search of water and fuel. Yes, the boil order was inconvenient, but it was not debilitating.

Besides, it’s our own fault. 5o years ago, we could drink right out of the rivers on a camping trip. Things are turning around. Yes, the once toxic Charles River is getting cleaner every year, but it’s a long road back. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

4. We’re paranoid
People were convinced that the tap water was deadly. We were told to rapidly boil the water for a full minute but I heard about one family that boiled a pot for an hour, until barely anything was left. Others would only bathe with bottled water — movie star style.

5. We’re Crazy
I’ll never forget standing in a grocery store parking lot, hearing about the pushing and shoving inside at the water aisle. Things really went downhill when police had to be called to a BJ’s. It was almost as surreal as that fight at the Pops. We had devolved into emotional anarchy.

I watched one woman triumphantly unload $150 worth of bottled water, as if her family’s survival was now ensured. She had gathered her troops and directed them to retrieve bottled water in a stunning display of speed, strategy and power. They were eyed with envy and disgust and I began to worry about their safety.

Meanwhile, a nervous person asked me if she should buy bottled water for her dog. I reminded her of the joy she gets watching her dog jump into the lake each summer to play fetch. I told her that I jump into lakes to play fetch. I’ve had abundant lake water up my nose and down my throat thanks to some spectacular water skiing fails. I’m ok. The dog is ok. We’re all ok.

6. We’re Addicts
On Day 3 of the crisis, I met a friend for coffee. The Starbucks could only make chilled chai teas. Nothing hot, because they couldn’t use steam, and nothing cold, because there was no ice. “Is that coffee?!’’ glassy-eyed people would nervously ask again and again. “No,’’ I said, with a protective hand cupped around the cup. “Just tea.’’

At 5 p.m., the shop closed its doors, when management decided it was too costly to pay a staff not churning out coffee hits. As we wrapped up our coffee-less chat, outsiders pressed their noses against the glass, knocking forlornly. Others banged on the door more emphatically, like Benjamin in the wedding scene from “The Graduate.’’ They would get a firm no, and a shake of the head that would send them away dejected.

People crossed the Charles River to retrieve coffee from Cambridge.

They walked across the bridges with their spoils. Some raged against The Republic, as if it had somehow stolen Boston’s resources and should be invaded in retaliation. Suddenly, I viewed Cambridge as an unfortunate Baltic Republic with an angry, hungry Boston, bearing down like old Russia in a relentless push for a warm water port. Yes, history can repeat itself.

At least those people walked. I heard of others who got in their cars and aimlessly drove and drove until they found a safe Dunkin’s.

People tried other fixes. The staff at one restaurant hopped themselves up on Red Bull. Others went for full-caffeine soda. I saw one man, in an act of self-loathing, buying six-packs of Fanta, when nothing else was available. He figured the sugar would give him a jolt.

7. Back to Being Lucky
The water crisis lasted just days, not the weeks we were warned about. But it’s not over yet. Some medical experts said the symptoms of bacteria borne illness could take a week to present. Looking at our other behaviors during the crisis, we can assume we’re also hypochondriacs. There’s still plenty of time for a mass psychosomatic outbreak. We better go make ourselves some well-boiled tea.

Janet Wu is a reporter with 7News.

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