WILMINGTON, MA/NORTH READING, MA — Following nearly two years of below average precipitation and a severe drought, our Ipswich River is in terrible condition. The river has been experiencing record low flows for the time of year every day since late May and on August 8th, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) determined that the river’s flow was the worst on record for July. Never in history has the flow been this low for this long so early in the season. Several of the river’s major tributaries have dried up completely, as have sections of the mainstem, killing fish and other river life. “If this continues much longer,” says Executive Director Wayne Castonguay, “2016 may go down as the worst year in history for our river.”
While extended droughts such as this always have negative impacts, the situation in the Ipswich River is greatly exacerbated by water withdrawals. On an average day, over 30 million gallons of water is removed by public water suppliers and private wells, much of it for unnecessary watering of lawns. It is particularly disheartening that more than 80% of the water withdrawn from the river remains exempt from any state regulations and people are free to water outside as much as they want in many towns. According to the USGS, if we can simply eliminate non-essential outdoor water use during dry periods, there will be enough water in the river and its major tributaries to sustain flows, even during this kind of drought. Right now, every tributary with a major municipal well is dry while every tributary without such a withdrawal has water in it.
Although there have been some bright spots and the river’s flow has improved overall due to our work, it remains highly susceptible to extreme dry periods because full groundwater aquifers are needed to keep the river flowing. When these aquifers are pumped below the level of the riverbed, rivers and streams dry up. Fortunately, solutions are readily available to fix this problem once and for all if we can improve the regulations and better incentivize communities to take action. If we can work together to reduce non-essential outdoor water use, support basic conservation measures imposed on all withdrawals including private wells, and find ways to help communities pursue alternate sources of water during dry periods, we will have a healthy river even during times of drought.
In this video, taken two weeks prior to the Board photo below, Martin’s Brook can be seen flowing backwards towards the Town of North Reading’s and Wilmington’s wells. This backward flow began on July 22nd. By August 1st, the brook was completely dry and thousands of fish had perished.
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(NOTE: The above press release is from the Ipswich River Watershed Association.)
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