WHAT looks, tastes, and smells clean enough to drink, but isn't? Boston's water, according to federal standards, and the water of thousands of communities across the United States, including New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Scranton, Pa., and Portland, Maine. For Bostonians familiar with the pristine woods surrounding the sparkling blue water of the reservoirs that supply the city, the news is hard to swallow.
But with the deadline for cleanup only 11 months away, Boston and other cities are scrambling to come up with ways to meet the standards set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Amendments to the act in 1986 require communities that get water from surface sources - lakes, streams, reservoirs - to filter it before supplying consumers, or to file an ``avoidance'' plan if the town's water is so clean it doesn't need filtering.
Authorities in Boston have up to now planned to file such an ``avoidance'' plan with the Environmental Protection Agency and work to protect the watershed surrounding the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs.
However, in a Jan. 30 vote that rankled environmentalists and promises to burden taxpayers, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which regulates water and sewer systems in the state, voted to scrap protection plans and build a filtration plant instead.
The cost of the plant is expected to exceed $350 million - $30 a year per user for 10 years - more than triple the cost of watershed protection.
Environmentalists charge that this is a short-sighted ``technical fix'' of a pollution problem that will only worsen. Without protection of delicate watershed lands, they say, the door is wide open for residential and industrial developments to move in, spoiling natural areas.
But the MWRA board has determined that even an extensive buy-up plan will not clean up the high bacteria counts found in the water.
``The board has tried and tried to find a way to avoid building a filtration plant. All the incentives are there to find an alternative,'' says board chairwoman Susan Tierney, recently appointed as state secretary of environmental affairs by Gov. William Weld. ``But the readings on coliform counts look as though this is the last straw that will prevent [the MWRA] getting a waiver from federal law. As long as the law is on the books, we will have to comply.''
Coliform is bacteria from human and animal waste. In more than 25 percent of the water samples taken over the past 6 months, the coliform levels exceeded federally set legal limits, says MWRA project director Allen Adelman. ``And the counts weren't just close. They were often much higher.''
But environmentalists contend that filtration will come at the expense of the longer-range solution of watershed protection. ``The MWRA is being `pound foolish,''' says Paul Wingle of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. ``This betrays a real `end-of-the-pipe' solution, a philosophy that is more expensive to maintain, and fails to prevent contaminants from working their way into the water in the first place.''
If the coliform count is high, find the source of contamination and correct it, says Mr. Wingle. If storm runoff and underground septic systems are a problem, establish a buffer zone of 400-feet around the reservoir, he says.
The society is preparing to support state legislation that would set aside funds for watershed protection. But the bill has been defeated three times already.
As Boston begins to discuss filtration, other cities and states are grappling with the same issue.
California has proposed a rule that would require all systems to filter their water. New York City is considering whether to file for avoidance and protect the watershed upstate in the Catskills which supplies the city with its water.
Pennsylvania has decided to provide filtration at all of its locations that depend on surface waters for drinking supplies.
Stig Regli, the environmental engineer with the EPA who set the standards for safe water, says communities should not think of filtration and watershed protection as ``either-or'' propositions. ``What we would like is for provisions in place to maintain protected watersheds, regardless of whether there is filtration. There is a need for that in the long run. It's a good strategy for controlling new contaminants. It's an investment in the future.''