Optimism flowing for the Ipswich
For the Ipswich River, the signs of improvement are found not just on the riverbed, but also at high-profile spots in town squares and along main roads.
They read: “Water Ban.’’
It has been six years since the Department of Environmental Protection placed greater restrictions on the water withdrawals communities can make from the river - prompted by a lawsuit from the Ipswich River Watershed Association - forcing Hamilton, Wenham, Topsfield, Lynnfield, and other towns to toe a stricter line on water use.
In April 2003, the river had just received a dubious distinction. American Rivers, a national conservation organization, had just named it on a list of “most endangered rivers’’ in the nation.
Since then, due in large part to water bans and other remediation efforts by communities, the river is coming back.
“There is some improvement and there are signs of recovery,’’ said Kerry Mackin, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, the advocacy organization for the river, which runs approximately 45 miles from its source in Wilmington, through North Reading and Reading and out to the ocean in Ipswich. “Overall, the picture is optimistic, but the work is not done. “
Several communities in the watershed draw water from the river basin for public water supplies, which advocates contend causes the river to run dry during hot summer months.
The most dramatic change has been observed in Reading, where in 2006 Town Meeting voted to tie into the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority for all municipal water use. The choice was partly financial - the town needed to tie in or build a new water-treatment plant - and partly environmental.
“The unspoken piece of it may have been water quality and security,’’ said Peter Hechenbleikner, town manager. In 1992, Reading had a gas spill on its well field, which is located next to a major highway. Although the community had since recovered, the accident “pointed out the vulnerability of our water system.’’
The change has been pronounced, said Mackin, noting that some of the association’s most dramatic photographs - of dead fish and stranded kayaks - were taken there.
“The river has recovered remarkably in that area,’’ she noted. “It’s got water in it continuously.’’
Reading has also developed a progressive plan to capitalize on the beauty of the river, which runs along town-owned land, by developing a 2.5-mile Ipswich River Greenway trail system that will provide more public access.
The American Rivers “Endangered’’ list is intended to spotlight problems in watersheds (as opposed to ranking rivers from year to year), and in 2003 it focused specifically on rivers with flow issues.
“Due to excessive municipal water withdrawals and excessive pumping of nearby ground water, the Ipswich is widely regarded as the most flow-stressed river in the Northeast,’’ read the report from the watchdog group.
The DEP traditionally would increase the allocated water amounts for communities every five years, but it stopped that practice as a result of the watershed association’s lawsuit. The DEP has also imposed conditions on communities to increase water efficiency.
The total volume of water allowed to be withdrawn from the watershed in 2003 was 36.1 million gallons per day, said Duane LeVangie, manager of the DEP’s water-management program. That number in 2009 is 32.6 million, he said.
The actual usage was 23.5 million in 2007, said LeVangie. By comparison, in 2001 it was 28.3 million gallons.
Other communities have also changed their water-use patterns in recent years.
Since the contamination of some of its wells in 2003, Wilmington has opted to buy a portion of its water from the MWRA. Danvers and Middleton have also stepped up water conservation.
Mackin noted that DEP permits governing water withdrawal for municipalities will expire in August, with new permits issued after that. “We are by no means done challenging the water-withdrawal issue,’’ she said.
River flow is important not only to those who use the river recreationally, but for habitat. Scientists hope that better flow will bring back the anadromous fish that spawn in rivers and serve as forage food for cod, haddock, and other species.