Originally published at On The Commons: www.onthecommons.org

Bostonians got an amazing glimpse of our water commons this week – as an entire infrastructure of largely invisible “commons” institutions revealed itself.

On Saturday afternoon, I was driving home to Boston from a meeting on the North Shore of Massachusetts. My cell phone rang with a bilingual message indicating that a major water main had broken west of Boston and that we should boil all water for a minute. As I approached the city, electronic billboards flashed signs “Boil Water, Emergency Advisory.”

As I drove into my neighborhood, police in cruisers were broadcasting messages through neighborhood streets about the water situation. Television and radio newscasters explained that over 2 million people in our metropolitan area were without clean water because of a single broken pipe. Eight million gallons of water an hour were spilling into the Charles River. Back-up reservoirs we being tapped, but the water was not as clean.

Bostonians learned that our regional water agency, the Metropolitan Water Resource Authority, was taking quick action to replace the broken pipe, which was only 7 years old. The public officials that took the airwaves were calm and informative, clearly explaining the situation and counseling citizens on how to respond.

Everywhere I went, the conversation was about water. It was an informal “clean water appreciation day” in Boston. Parents talked to their children about where water came from. Sunday religious services gave thanks for clean water and offered prayers for those around the world without access to clean water. On Monday, teachers turned the water crisis into a teachable moment, explaining to students the sources of our water (the Quabbin Reservoir) and how to ensure water safety.

It wasn’t all kumbaya. Some shoppers got into shoving matches around the bottled water section of stores. Others engaged in price gouging. This behavior was roundly criticized as the norm became “help your more vulnerable neighbors.”

Within 48 hours the pipe was fixed, all the more amazing as the breach occurred on a weekend. By Tuesday morning, the water emergency was over. No one was reported sick. At no time was the flow of water impeded or limited.

The Boston water emergency revealed a water commons that we take for granted. From the gift of water – to the infrastructure that transports it –to the government emergency response system – we got an inspiring glimpse into the efficient management of a common resource.

After decades of anti-government bashing, local commentators made a point of celebrating a job well done. Our governor Deval Patrick praised the quick work of the invisible workers who manage our water commons.

The water emergency was a curious gift in water mindfulness for an entire metropolitan area.

See this terrific by Dan Wasserman Cartoon: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/outofline/2010/05/got_water.html

IPS senior scholar Chuck Collins directs the Inequality and the Common Good project in the IPS Boston office.

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