The Teachable Moment: Geography and the Boston Area Boil Water Advisory

Yesterday (Sunday) about two o'clock in the afternoon I first heard about the "boil water advisory" for much of my region around Boston. The radio news described the advisory as in effort for all communities "east of Weston." (map of location of water main break that caused this advisory) What an odd way to say that; Weston is not a big or significant town. I spoke to more than a few locals that really didn't know where it was. However, they astutely figured that since the name has "west" in it and we are right up against Boston and can't get much "easter," we were in the boil water zone. (list of towns under advisory)

My grocery store still had bottled water at 6 pm but it was flying off the shelves. The gentleman in front of me bought $66 worth of water. I bought just a gallon and boiled a spaghetti pot of water once I got home.

My run this morning went out of Somerville, but I stopped at the gym on the way. There was no note on water fountain and I suggested to the staff it might be a good idea to say it was "off limits." When I returned to the gym later in the morning to shower, there was no such sign. And that was quite correct. One of my fellow runners reminded me that Cambridge water is ok and my gym is in Cambridge. Why is Cambridge ok? Unlike the other communities that depend on water from the Mass Water Resource Authority (MWRA), Cambridge does its own thing when it comes to water. It has its own water supply which comes from (among other places) Fresh Pond, a fully fenced in pond in Cambridge.

The advisory has caused some interesting business challenges. In Somerville, Dunkin Donuts shut its doors. Down the block, Starbucks was open, but not serving water, coffee, tea - only bottled drinks. Still, there were folks in there, though apparently many went to the Cambridge Starbucks, all of which were open and had lines out door, according to the locals with whom I spoke. The Starbucks in Somerville did have a note that said all Cambridge Starbucks were open and serving coffee.

The teachable opportunities related to geography around this event are many and include:

- how connected we are to one another via water
- how geography and politics determines from where you water comes
- issues related to a single point of failure
- the difference a few blocks one way or another can have on your life
- distribution of bottled water to keep up with demand
- how water systems work
- the importance of sometimes "invisible" infrastructure in our lives
- how the information was distributed and spread across the population

Published Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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