Michael Dwyer  /  AP
Store employees bring in a shipment of bottled water at a supermarket in Chelsea, Mass., on Sunday.
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updated 5/2/2010 3:54:40 PM ET 2010-05-02T19:54:40

Crews worked Sunday on a quicker-than-expected fix to a major water break that left some 2 million people in the Boston area without clean water, halting coffee sales at many Dunkin' Donuts, triggering runs on bottled water and prompting the governor to warn against price gouging.

Residents were told to boil tap water for drinking or cooking since some untreated water had entered the system. It remained safe for showering and toilet flushing.

"It's like lake water," said Frederick Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. "You'll swim in it, but not drink it."

Adding to the pressure was an unseasonably warm spring forecast for the area, with the temperature predicted to reach a summer-like 88 degrees.

There also were economic and social impacts: Restaurants in suburban Lexington shut down Saturday night, unable to wash dishes or serve customers clean water, while police in Revere had to be called into a BJ's Wholesale Club after crowds clamoring for bottled water turned unruly.

"It was a little unclear whether we could bathe or not," said Leenoel Chase, who was searching for coffee amid the closed shops in Lexington. "I forgot and almost brushed my teeth."

She replaced a planned pasta dinner Saturday night with a more adventurous — but less water-demanding — souffle.

Hongbin Luo of Lexington came upon a Stop & Shop that had just restocked its shelves. He wheeled out a shopping cart with two cases of water, plus 18 one-gallon bottles.

"We want to have something to use and send off with the kids to school," Luo said.

A sign at a Dunkin's competitor, Peet's, read simply, "Due to the water main break, we are unable to make any coffee or tea beverages."

The breach was reported Saturday morning in Weston, about 10 miles west of Boston. It occurred in a coupling holding together two sections of a 10-foot-wide metal pipe carrying 250 million gallons of treated water a day from the Quabbin Reservoir to some 750,000 households in 30 communities.

Officials initially said a repair might take weeks, but diverted parts from a nearby project and welders modified them in a matter of hours.

They installed the bottom half by noon, then began attaching the top half. They then planned pressure and water quality tests, aiming to finish the work by Monday.

"The extent of the damage is not as great as we feared," Patrick said after donning a pair of work boots and climbing into the hole to watch the welders at work. He cautioned that pressure tests might reveal other breaks.

Officials remained puzzled by the cause, since the break — which occurred in a seam sealed with rubber gaskets — was in a stretch of pipe just seven years old. They said they would be checking the blueprints for other similar connections, to assess the risk of another breach.

"It could have been a design flaw, it could have been a construction flaw, it could have been that the product was faulty, it could have been something in our system," said Laskey. "There's just so many different variables that come into play here when you're dealing with that much strength."

Concerned about such a vulnerability in the system, the MWRA has been repairing the original line that supplied Boston, which runs parallel to the new one. That $700 million project started nine months ago and is still three to four years from completion.

"We were working hard to have a solution in place for just this type of problem. Unfortunately, it came up before we were finished," said MWRA spokeswoman Ria Convery.

If there was any good news in the break, it is that it occurred on MWRA property next to the Charles River. An estimated 65 million gallons flowed there, rather than into area neighborhoods. In addition, the spare parts were pulled from the restoration project, and the contractor that built the broken pipe — the Barletta Cos. — was working on the rehab project and able to divert heavy machinery to fix the breach.

Boston's water runs from the Quabbin Reservoir, in the central part of the state, to the Wachusett Reservoir, before being treated at a plant in Marlborough. It travels through an 18-foot-wide pipe through Weston, where it branches off into the 10-foot-wide pipe that broke.

When the breach occurred, the MWRA rerouted the clean water through the Sudbury Aqueduct, which hasn't been used in decades. It also briefly tapped the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to maintain pressure and meet expected demand. While the water in the aqueduct was clean, the water from the reservoir — which is in the open air next to Boston College — is not, prompting the boil-water alert.

Overnight, Boston residents appeared to heed calls to reduce their water consumption. They used less than 190 million gallons, well below the normal nightly usage of more than 200 million gallons this time of year. Nonetheless, the MWRA did not want to drop the boil-water alert because it planned to intermittently tap the reservoir.

Patrick declared a state of emergency since the water didn't meet federal clean water drinking standards.

Health officials said drinkers risked a parasite infection in about a week. They warned people not to use the water for making baby formula, washing raw vegetables or making ice.

Patrick also asked large supermarket chains to increase their bottled water orders and added that, if needed, the state can distribute emergency drinking water through the National Guard.

"This is the wrong time to be gouging," the governor said. "This is the time for folks to pull together and act like neighbors."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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