The Ipswich River flows about 45 miles from its source to the sea. The river and its watershed supply water to almost 350,000 people and thousands of businesses in 14 separate communities. Over 35 million gallons a day, mostly from groundwater wells near the river, is diverted for municipal and non-municipal usage, including three golf courses and a plant nursery.
In what may be a sign of things to come, surrounding towns have passed ordinances that limit lawn watering, car-washing and the filling of pools at certain times of the year.
Over the past decade, the Ipswich River has also become the unfortunate poster child for water over-allocation in New England. Due to excessive withdrawals, the upper portion of the river routinely dries up. Throughout most of the summer in 2005, the river was sucked completely dry due to municipal water usage, killing hundreds of fish and other aquatic organisms. In the low flow stretches, only warm-water species were able to survive, and typical river species such as brown trout, fall fish and white sucker now comprise only 9% of the remaining fish community on the river.
In response, the state has identified the Ipswich watershed as one of the state’s high-stress basins. The Department of Environmental Protection can consider this status when determining whether to grant or renew permits or what conditions to place on them (i.e. water conservation mandates or streamflow triggers).
Ipswich River, Massachusetts
A court recently issued a landmark decision upholding the Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to conditionally grant water withdrawal renewal permits for two towns in the Ipswich River Basin. Permits were conditioned on the towns’ compliance with strict water conservation standards, including restrictions on non- essential outdoor water uses (lawn irrigation) during the summer months. These uses have been identified as principal causes of low flows.