Last summer, at the height of Massachusetts’ worst drought in years, the 35-mile-long Ipswich River was flowing at a meager rate of 0.5 cubic feet per second — “basically nothing.”
Those are the words of Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, who explained in October 2020 how whenever dry conditions hit the state, the waterbody he monitors so regularly is typically hit the hardest, in large part because of an antiquated state law that allows for an excessive amount of water to be withdrawn from the Ipswich.
The majority of the river, which serves as the main drinking water source for Northeastern Massachusetts, is exempt from any state or federal regulations due to a law passed in the 1980s, Castonguay noted. Providing drinking water to roughly 350,000 residents across 14 communities, the Ipswich has become the most slow-stressed river in the Bay State, meaning a large portion of its water, around to 80%, is exported outside the watershed every day and never returns to the system.
“Whenever droughts hit, we are affected harshly,” Castonguay told MassLive last year. “We’re normally stressed because of that exportation, but with droughts, the dryness is exacerbated.”
This week, American Rivers, a nonprofit that for nearly 50 years has been working to protect watersheds across the country, named the Ipswich the eighth most endangered river in the United States in 2021, calling it the “poster child” for the state’s outdated water system. The greatest threat posed to the river, according to the organization: excessive water withdrawals.
“An astounding 80 percent of Ipswich water is exported out of the watershed,” American Rivers said in its explainer. “Worse, more than 90 percent of withdrawals are exempt from any water use conditions like conservation measures.”
Even in non-drought years, stretches of the Ipswich are pumped dry, resulting in fish dying, ecological damage, lost recreational space and threats to the quality and security of the water supply, according to American Rivers.
The climate crisis is making the situation worse, the organization pointed out, noting how communities are increasingly worried about running out of water. In MassLive’s three-part series about last year’s drought, David F. Boutt, a professor of hydrogeology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained how the global climate crisis will make extreme weather patterns, like severe droughts as well as intense flooding, more frequent in the years to come.
With the effects of climate change looming on the horizon, American Rivers said it’s “critical” in the current moment that state officials, water suppliers and cities and town work together to make Massachusetts a leader for smart water use.
“While behavior and land use changes can lower some water use, we cannot solve this problem without a more balanced regulatory framework,” the organization argued, noting excessive…