Apr. 13—IPSWICH — A national conservation group has named the Ipswich River one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country, saying the region's major source of drinking water faces a "grave threat" from excessive water withdrawals.
The group, American Rivers, blames the problem on a confusing system of state regulations that exempts several communities from conservation rules. The system leaves towns such as Danvers and Ipswich subject to restrictions like lawn-watering bans during droughts, while communities such as Salem and Beverly are exempt.
"The Ipswich River is the poster child for the state's outdated water system," American Rivers said in a report released on Tuesday.
Ipswich state Rep. Brad Hill said he was not surprised that the Ipswich River made the list of 10 most endangered rivers, noting that it also happened in 1997 and 2003. But he said the designation highlights the urgency of the current situation.
The Ipswich River supplies drinking water for 350,000 people and businesses in 14 communities. Hill said overdevelopment and inconsistent rules are putting the river at risk. He said the reservoir in Ipswich nearly went dry a few years ago, and there are times when you can walk across the dry river bed.
"I'm very worried that people are not taking this as seriously as they should," Hill said. "This is the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people. We're really in dire straits."
Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, said he hopes the endangered designation will focus attention on the river at a time when the state is considering new rules regarding how much water can be drawn from it.
"We've been making slow, steady progress over the years on this issue, but the two droughts in the last five years was really a wakeup call that although we've made great progress, it's really not enough," Castonguay said. "The impacts of climate change are really overwhelming our ability to keep up."
The American Rivers report said the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection must overhaul how it regulates water withdrawals. Castonguay said the current system dates to 1986, when the law that established water withdrawal limits for communities was passed. Communities that needed more water had to obtain permits, and those communities are the ones subject to conservation restrictions.
"It creates two classes," Castonguay said. "Salem and Beverly, the biggest water users, have no requirements to conserve. It makes it deflating for their next-door neighbors who do."
Hill said it is frustrating from him to drive through Salem or Beverly during a drought and see people watering their lawns or washing their cars, while people in Ipswich are being told to limit their toilet and shower use.
Hill also said the pace of development in some communities is putting more of a strain on the Ipswich River.
"The fact that we're looking at this individually rather than regionally is very concerning to me," he said. "We're seeing development happening in waves on the North Shore. Anyone can see that we're building too much and using too much water."
Alan Taubert, executive director of the Salem and Beverly Water Supply Board, said those communities do not damage the river because they have an extensive system of reservoirs and can pump water during the winter, when the river is high.
"Our belief is, we only take water from it during certain periods when there's enough water to take," Taubert said. "Once we fill our reservoirs we don't take any more."
Still, Taubert said the two communities are willing to talk about possible conservation measures.
"It's all of ours to try to protect," he said.
A pivotal year
Ipswich was listed eighth on the list of 10 most endangered rivers by American Rivers, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The Snake River, which runs through Idaho, Washington and Oregon, was ranked No. 1. The organization said each river on the list is at a "tipping point" and facing an "urgent decision" in the coming months.
The report said this is a pivotal year for the Ipswich River because water withdrawal permits are up for renewal for the first time in two decades in Massachusetts. Legislation has also been proposed that would regulate water use during droughts.
"This is a once-in-generation opportunity to get better rules on the books," the report said.
The American Rivers report said 15 million gallons per day in the Ipswich River are wasted due to outdoor watering. Parts of the river are pumped dry even in non-drought years, the report said, resulting in dead fish, ecological damage, loss of recreational activities, and threats to the water supply.
"Municipalities and residents are increasingly worried about running out of water," the report said.
In releasing its report, American Rivers included a video from John Kerry, the former U.S. senator from Massachusetts who is now the special presidential envoy for climate. In the video, Kerry recalled boating on the Ipswich River as a kid with his cousins to Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester. He thanked the Ipswich Watershed Association for their work in preserving the river.
"I want you to know that the Ipswich is particularly close to my heart," Kerry said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.