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Lauded advocate of rivers retires

Kerry Mackin.

As the Ipswich River Watershed Association prepares to find a replacement for its executive director, one attribute the organization will look for is something that Kerry Mackin gave it in spades.

“We want someone with a passion for the mission,’’ said Art Howe, who will head the search for the new leader of the group that has advocated for the health of the river, which runs for 45 miles northeasterly from Wilmington through Reading, North Reading, Middleton, Topsfield, and Hamilton before reaching Ipswich and the Atlantic Ocean. The watershed area includes approximately 155 square miles of land and includes all or part of 21 communities.

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Mackin, 63, will be retiring later this year after 19 years leading the organization. Howe began advertising the position Monday.

“I’m ready to retire; I expect to be doing work on advocacy after I leave this position, but won’t be working full time,’’ said Mackin, who first broached the subject of retirement two years ago as the board of directors was developing a strategic plan.

“I’m very happy with what we’ve accomplished. It’s been great progress. There’s still plenty to do, but I’m confident we’ll be able to find a person who will be able to continue the progress and potentially even move us forward in a better way. There will be great opportunity for the right person.’’

Peter Phippen, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said the search will be for a candidate with multiple qualities, including fund-raising and political acumen on the local, state, and federal level.

The new executive director will inherit a much different organization than the one Mackin took over in 1993. At that time it was an all-volunteer initiative, and Mackin was a 15-hour-a-week executive director. Now the association has five staffers (three are part time), a permanent home on the banks of the river in Ipswich, and an annual budget of $350,000.

It also has taken on a new initiative that, for the first time, expands its reach beyond its own watershed. Parker-Ipswich-Essex Rivers Restoration Partnership, launched in 2011, focuses on habitat restoration for three neighboring watersheds as well as the Great Marsh, an expanse of some 20,000 acres that stretches from Gloucester to Salisbury.

“The board has a direction, but you also have to use the talents of the new person,’’ said Phippen. “We’d like to continue on the same track that we’ve been going, which is a lot more restoration project work, as opposed to the litigation that the association has been involved with in the last five years.’’

That litigation related to the Water Management Act and the water withdrawal rates of local communities.

The multiriver initiative to improve habitat and flow, called PIEr2, encompasses a larger region and partners with the Parker River Clean Water Association, Mass Audubon, Essex County Greenbelt, MassWildlife, and several other conservation-minded entities.

Phippen said that the group could protect more habitat by taking a regional approach. The group is formulating an action plan that includes an inventory of potential restoration projects in the three watersheds.

“Over the past year we’ve been trying to figure out who should be involved, what are the priorities, and how do we set those priorities,’’ said Phippen, who said the group considered adding the Merrimack River to the north and the Annisquam River to the south, but opted not to, because the habitat and issues for those rivers were too different from the Ipswich, Essex, and Parker.

Under Mackin, the association drew national attention to concerns about the watershed. The river protection organization, American Rivers, placed the Ipswich on its endangered rivers list in 2003.

Mackin used legal and political avenues to push watershed communities to adopt new conservation methods - most frequently, watering bans - to reduce stress on the watershed, as it pushed regulators to develop new limits for water withdrawal.

Her advocacy led to changes in the way communities treated the watershed, and earned the river, the association, and Mackin herself considerable recognition.

Mackin received a national River Hero Award in 2007 from the River Network, which includes about 2,000 state, regional, and local grass-roots organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency recognized Mackin and the watershed association with merit awards.

The new executive director will be paid commensurate with experience. Mackin was paid $67,833 in 2009, according to the association’s most recent nonprofit tax filing available.

David Rattigan can be reached at drattigan.globe@gmail.com.
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