Column: Why we need to conserve water now

Low flows cause both immediate and long-lasting damage to a river’s ecosystem. Making water conservation an everyday practice can protect both wildlife and water supplies. Courtesy photo

Depending on where you live on the North Shore, you can routinely see signs proclaiming water bans. Or, you may never see such a sign. Even within the same community, those on town water may be counting every drop while well users can keep the sprinkler running. All the while, after a 10-year lull, the pace of development is increasing rapidly on the North Shore, putting more of a demand on our finite water supplies. One thing many communities do have in common: The water from their tap comes from the Ipswich River watershed. This includes Salem, Lynn, Beverly and Peabody, whose residents live predominantly or entirely outside the watershed of the river itself.

A new study by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (ipswichriver.org/news/DEPstudy) shows that more and more water being used in the Ipswich River watershed is not subject to local water conservation requirements. Many sources not connected to the public water systems are exempt from local water restrictions, including private wells, agriculture, athletic fields and certain businesses. Our region uses more than 4 million gallons more water since the year 2000. Since all water is connected, this increased usage puts further strain on the watershed.

Those who remember the 2016 drought might associate it with dry, hot summer days, but the damage done by the drought was much farther reaching than a single season. It took months for groundwater to return to stable levels and the ecological damage is still evident today. Once the region enters drought conditions, it’s too late to undo the damage, which is why conservation needs to be a year-round practice, not an emergency measure.

We have the means at hand to protect our water resources and it’s well past time for conservation to be common practice. Even during years like this, when conditions are wet and rain seems plentiful, the Ipswich River is still stressed. Part of what is needed is a shift in how development is planned and regulated. We know that there is a need for more housing, but development doesn’t have to come at the cost of safe, reliable water. By implementing a net zero or water-neutral growth policy, towns can reduce stress placed on the river. The Ipswich River Watershed Association is advocating such a policy, advising that every development or redevelopment project that utilizes water from the Ipswich River watershed does not increase water use above existing levels. To assist communities, the watershed association is developing strategies and programs to support water neutral growth within the 14 cities and towns that depend on Ipswich River water.

Policy changes are increasingly important to protect our water resources, but there are also actions that we all should individually adopt. Water use is at its highest in the summer, when temperatures are at their hottest and precipitation is often at its lowest. Much of the increased use is due to unnecessary outdoor water use. Solutions like using native, drought-tolerant grasses and plants provide beautiful outdoor spaces without negatively impacting water supplies. For suggestions on native plant species, look to the recently revised Greenscapes Guide, released by the Greenscapes North Shore Coalition and available on their website for free (www.greenscapes.org). The guide has lots of tips and techniques for water-friendly homeowner practices, including rain barrels.

While longer dry spells are expected to increase, the North Shore is also likely to see an increase in severe storms. Hard, fast, destructive storms do little to help recharge groundwater since it runs quickly off the land, but by installing a rain barrel, homeowners can collect rainwater to be used during drier conditions. Some towns have programs offering discounted rain barrels and IRWA holds rain barrel workshops. Learn more about water in your community and sign up for our next rain barrel workshop at www.ipswichriver.org.

Wayne Castonguay is the executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.