IPSWICH — The Ipswich River, once considered one of the most endangered rivers in the country, is now in “the best shape in a decade,” according to the executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.
“We’re finally, after decades of work, showing some real signs of progress in the river,” Wayne Castonguay said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. But we’re actually showing that it can be done.”
Pollution levels are also down, and the fish population is starting to come back, Castonguay said.
The condition of the Ipswich River has long been a major ecological concern. The river supplies drinking water for 335,000 people in 14 communities, supports a wide range of fish and wildlife, and provides a host of recreational opportunities.
In 2003, the river was named one of the “10 most endangered rivers in America,” as the amount of water withdrawn from its basin left portions of it completely dry at times.
Castonguay, who took over as executive director of the nonprofit Ipswich River Watershed Association last year, said flow levels have also improved since the town of Reading stopped drawing water from the river in 2006.
Castonguay said Wilmington and North Reading are also considering switching over completely to the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, which draws its water from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs.
“We’re actually seeing water consumption decrease in the watershed,” he said. “The Reading stretch used to dry up every summer, but since then, it hasn’t. If we can get people to conserve a little bit more, the future looks bright.”
Castonguay said the watershed association has worked with the 14 communities that take water from the river to adopt conservation measures, including bans on outdoor watering when the river reaches low levels during the summer.
Last November, the state released a new plan that would gives more communities incentives to switch to the MWRA and further alleviate stress on the Ipswich River, Castonguay said.
Gregory Krom, Topsfield’s water superintendent, said conservation measures have strengthened the river, allowing the town to abandon its search for another water supply, such as a deep rock well that would have been costly.
“I think residents would like to water their lawns probably more than has been allowed the last few years, but there are some benefits to the conservation that we’ve seen,” he said.
Krom said the town’s water ban, which kicks in when the river reaches low levels, did not go into effect until last week, a couple of months later than usual. He said he hopes that is a sign that conservation measures along the river are working.
“We’re a small water supplier on the bottom end of the watershed, so we stand to benefit from any improvements they make upstream,” Krom said.
Castonguay, a 49-year-old Ipswich native, became executive director of the watershed association last September but has been involved with the organization as a volunteer and board member for more than 20 years. He has worked as a biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, an ecologist for The Trustees of Reservations and general manager of Appleton Farms in Ipswich.
Castonguay said the organization is working to increase public access on the river. It is building a new boat landing at its headquarters in Ipswich and reconstructing a canoe launch on Route 97 in Topsfield. It has also published a new canoe and kayaking guide to the river.
The association has about 800 members and an annual budget of $300,000. Two months ago, it launched a campaign with the goal of increasing membership to more than 1,000.
“Three hundred and thirty thousand people drink from the river every day. We’d love to get more of those people,” Castonguay said. “Ultimately, we’re here for the people and to protect their water.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.