Ipswich River, dry in parts, needs better management, activists say

Wayne Castonguay spoke to Ipswich River Watershed Association members at a breakfast held in the riverbed — an attempt to highlight the waterway’s problems.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Wayne Castonguay spoke to Ipswich River Watershed Association members at a breakfast held in the riverbed — an attempt to highlight the waterway’s problems.

Wayne Castonguay loved fishing and canoeing on the Ipswich River when he was growing up. But Sunday morning, he and about 60 other people set up tables with red-checkered tablecloths to eat breakfast in a section of the river that has gone dry after many months of drought and what they said are years of overdrawing of its water by surrounding municipalities.

On gravelly ground near the Winthrop Street bridge in Hamilton, where they had been able to kayak only a few months ago, they sat in chairs and ate pastries, drank coffee, and discussed how to save the river.

“The Ipswich River is the lifeblood of the North Shore,” said Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association. About 350,000 people rely on the river for drinking water, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.


This summer’s drought is exacerbating an already intense problem caused by uneven regulations on how much water municipalities can take from the river, he said. Some are grandfathered in and are not subject to stricter water conservation laws, allowing them to drain as much water from the Ipswich River as they like, he said.

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“If someone stuck a hose in the brooks and took all the water out, people would say, ‘That’s a crime,’ ” said association board member Suzanne Sullivan. “But if you have ground-water wells, and you suck all the water out like that, people say, ‘It’s OK.’ ”

Sullivan also has fond memories of the Ipswich River from her childhood and hopes her children would have similar remembrances. But after moving to the river’s headwaters in Wilmington in 1989, she couldn’t just enjoy it. She had to protect it.

“Our tributaries have been bone dry since July,” she said.

And it’s not just this year’s drought. Every year, tributaries in Wilmington, which feed water downstream, go dry for months, Sullivan said.


“The Ipswich River is the poster child” for states not imposing consistent water conservation regulations, she said.

Nonessential water use — watering lawns to keep them green, washing cars, and so on — cripples the river, Castonguay said.

“The Baker-Polito administration has publicized — and will continue to publicize — the importance of water conservation throughout the duration of the drought event,” said a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, Ed Coletta, in an e-mailed statement.

Additionally, withdrawal permits issued under the Water Management Act to Ipswich River municipalities are up for renewal next year, with “an open and transparent process on all the issues associated,” according to Coletta.

But as bad as the Ipswich River’s condition is, Castonguay emphasized it’s not hopeless.


“If we were to keep more water in the river, it will recover on its own,” he said.

Nicole Fleming can be reached at