Ipswich River flow
The Ipswich River in North Reading, under flowing and dry conditions (D. Armstrong, USGS)

Where is the water in the Ipswich River going? 
Wasteful use of water, “out-of-basin” transfers of water, and changes in land use – for example, from forest land (which percolates rainwater into the ground) to urban development (which tends to flush rainwater away during storms) – have all contributed to low-flow conditions in the Ipswich River watershed.

  • The Ipswich River and its aquifers supply drinking water to 15 communities and 330,000 residents and businesses. However, nearly 80% of the water withdrawn is piped to areas outside of the watershed, either as drinking water or wastewater.


Ipswich River Watershed
Change in recharge and runoff before and after intensive development: Massachusetts Smart Growth Toolkit

  • Outdoor irrigation is a major stress on the Ipswich River. Studies indicate that the amount of water needed to restore natural flows is about equal to the estimated amount used for lawn watering (see the Ipswich River Watershed Action Plan in Links
  • The amount of water pumped in summer – reflecting uses for outdoor irrigation, pools, and car washing – is often twice the year-round average.
  • Development continues at a rapid pace. Since 1971, an average of almost 1,000 acres per year have been developed in the Ipswich River watershed communities. Such development may alter the natural hydrologic cycle, increasing stormwater runoff and decreasing groundwater recharge. It is groundwater that feeds the river during periods of low precipitation. As groundwater dries up, so does the river.

Source: Ipswich River Watershed Action Plan. October 2003. Prepared by Horsley & Witten, Inc., for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (see Links ).

What is a Watershed?

A watershed is the geographic catchment area for a specific body of water, such as a river, stream, lake, wetland, or coastal water body. All surface water (and most groundwater) within a given watershed flows downhill to the water body. As water bodies tend to drain one to another, smaller watersheds are often nested within larger watersheds. All land area is part of a watershed, because all land drains somewhere.