Water has begun to trickle again through the bone-dry bed of the Ipswich River, a hopeful sign for the drought-stricken North Shore communities whose drinking supplies depend on the waterway.
Though the flow is getting better, environmentalists are crossing their fingers for continued wet weather to undo some of the damage unleashed by the unprecedented dry spell.
“We obviously monitor it daily, and the flow is still less than half of what it should be this time of year,” said Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.. “It’s improving, but what we’re worried about now is the ground water levels.”
Fourteen Massachusetts cities and towns draw on the Ipswich River’s groundwater.
“The cause of it is a combination of the drought and the withdrawals,” Castonguay said. “Our river is over-allocated, which means there’s more permission to take water than can be naturally replenished.”
By May 20, levels in the river had dropped to their lowest ever, and it had stopped flowing completely since August.
Castonguay said the October rain gave the river some help, ending the longest documented dry period in the river’s history.
“That was a big shot in the arm when rainfall in October was heavier than normal,” Castonguay said. “It began flowing again on Oct. 14, when we had two inches of rainfall that day.”
Castonguay said ground water is taken from the river year-round, but during the wet season, which lasts from Dec. 1 to Memorial Day, water from the river is also used to fill reservoirs.
“They pump water from the river into reservoirs during the wet season, so they don’t draw directly from the river during the drought,” Castonguay said. “For that to happen, the river has to flow above a certain threshold and right now, it’s about half the threshold.”
Castonguay said the towns can afford to wait a short time to fill their reservoirs. However, if the river does not fill up by about February, then towns may run into problems.
Castonguay said the drought has also had a lasting environmental impact on the wildlife in the Ipswich River.
“The environmental impact has been pretty devastating. Most of the fish in the river have died and a lot of the base of the food chain has died off too,” Castonguay said. “We’ve never seen anything like that.”
Castonguay said it could take one to two years for the insect population to recover, but the fish population could take years.
“It all depends on Mother Nature entirely,” Castonguay said.