Not a Drop to Drink

It took four words to remind Islanders this week how fragile our ecosystem is: Don’t drink the water.

Residents of Oak Bluffs last weekend were advised — not promptly enough for many, adding “devise foolproof disaster communications plan” to the to-do list for all town officials — that they should boil any water they might drink, use to wash their hands or teeth, or even their dishes.

The impact was felt deeply. Hospital workers, for whom hand-washing is an occupational duty, shifted to squirting hand sanitizers as they scrambled to find off-Island treatment and transport for their kidney dialysis patients. Town workers bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of bottled water and worked the pickup centers to distribute it free to residents (who we hope will recycle the containers). Restaurants couldn’t cook, clean or make coffee without boiled or bottled water and closed down their soda fountains. For one mother boiling water for her children’s bath, the consequence of forgetting the kettle was tragic: the family home caught fire and burned.

Routine monthly testing had detected contaminants, coliform bacteria, in the Oak Bluffs tap water. These are generally harmless, but may signal something more serious. That is, if these bacteria are found, it may indicate a problem with the treatment system or pipes that could allow more dangerous contaminants into the system.

Finding the source of this contamination is clearly the priority. Flushing the system and chlorination appear to have led to clear test results; the water should be potable again by as soon as today. But the follow-up investigation into this contamination must be thorough and transparent. If system repairs are required, residents need to be advised clearly and quickly, particularly in Oak Bluffs, where the budget is in a deficit and tough decisions will get tougher.

Whatever the explanation for this troubling water contamination, it should rally Islanders to scrutinize what we do collectively to preserve our natural environment. It was public scrutiny and outcry over raw sewage in the water that saw the federal government create the Clean Water Act a generation ago. Since then, public pressure has slackened, pollutants have become more subtle, invisible and even more toxic. It has made our ponds sometimes unfit for shellfishing and now our water sometimes unfit for drinking. This in a coastal resort.

Islanders can do more individually, too, to help protect our waterways. Eliminate or reduce fertilizers and pesticides. Repair fluid leaks in cars promptly. Use biodegradable cleaning products. Scoop up behind the pets. Scrutinize the urge for new development, which often happens with scant regard to its impact on the natural resources so critical to our health and livelihoods.

Live lightly, or carry a big wallet for the costs.