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Drought reduces Ipswich River to a shell of its usual self

By Trisha Thadani Globe Correspondent 

WILMINGTON — The drought in Massachusetts this summer has left portions of the Ipswich River bone-dry, an annual occurrence heightened this year by a lack of rainfall and a surplus of blistering sun.

“It is a recurring thing, but this year is on track to being the worst ever,” said Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.

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Castonguay said the river does not normally dry out until late August or early September. But this year, he said, water levels have been the lowest on record every day since the middle of May.

“It started earlier in the year, and extended much longer,” he said.

Experts have declared the recent pattern of dry weather a long-term drought, with little hope of it resolving soon. Even Wednesday morning’s heavy rainfall gave little hope of reprieve for the 7.66-inch rainfall deficit the state has this year.

Castonguay said the Ipswich River is particularly vulnerable to droughts because 30 million gallons of water are withdrawn from the river a day, as several surrounding towns rely on it for drinking water.

“Rivers are naturally able to sustain a drought, even ones as severe as this one,” he said. “Under natural conditions, it would still be flowing today.”

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Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said municipalities that normally would take water from the river have not taken water directly from it since late May. Rather, some towns withdraw water from local reservoirs that were filled last winter and this spring or from ground water wells.

“Mass DEP is taking the drought seriously and we are working with the community water suppliers to do a number of things, including making sure those that have water management act permits to withdraw water know what their restrictions are,” Coletta said.

Large patches of grass and countless lawns in North Reading, Wilmington, and Middleton were yellow and brown as scattered showers fell on the area Wednesday afternoon. In nearby Danvers, a water restriction warning was lifted to a Level 5 — the highest being Level 6 — when levels of the Ipswich water flow levels went below 18.7 cubic feet per second, said David Lane, the town’s public works director.

According to data from the United States Geological Survey, a portion of the river in Ipswich measured a discharge level of 0.74 cubic feet per second. The lowest recorded level for that area was 1.3 cubic feet per second in 2010.

While rain showers Wednesday lead to an uptick in the river’s water levels in certain areas, Castonguay said the drought has left the ground so dry and hard that the spikes are just temporary.

What the river bed really needs, he said, is long periods of soaking rain to get the ground saturated and replenish the ground water.

After Wednesday morning’s rainfall, Martins Brook, a portion of the Ipswich River near the town line of Wilmington and North Reading was seemingly replete with water. But by afternoon, the levels already began to decrease.


Trisha Thadani can be reached at trisha.thadani@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @TrishaThadani.