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Grassroots Efforts Help Save Endangered American River

The Ipswich River is one of America's most endangered waterways. Some 335,000 people in the Northeastern United States close to Boston depend on it for their drinking water. However, increasing demand from a growing population is pumping the Ipswich dry. The river can be saved. Grassroots conservation efforts are beginning to set the river on a healthier course.

Kim Honetschlager collects enough rain in large wooden barrels to water her garden all summer long. She lives a block from the Ipswich River, in the town of Reading. She canoes there regularly and is among a group of volunteers who monitor the river's month-to-month vital signs. "We look at the color of the water, the smell of the water, how clear the water is, its velocity and depth," she says. "We also test for dissolved oxygen which is an indicator of how healthy the water is."

The Ipswich is relatively flat, densely wooded and great for hiking, boating and swimming. Its streams and tributaries harbor birds and beavers and many aquatic species. Kerry Mackin is director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, a regional advocacy group. She says the low flows create sections of the river that are essentially stagnant pools. "Of the fish community that exists less than 10 percent are these river fish. The rest are what are called pond fish, pond species that can survive in more stagnant water conditions."

Mackin says every other year some sections run dry and turn into what more closely resemble dirt roads. She puts the blame on overuse of ground water by municipalities with wells close to the river.

A study by United States Geological Survey in 2000 documented what the citizens in the Ipswich watershed already knew: that the spring-fed river would not dry up under normal circumstances. Mackin says the USGS report also said the river could be saved. That means using less water, everywhere.

Reading town manager Peter Hechenbleikner says his community — faced with an expensive upgrade of its water treatment plant — voted to stop pumping from wells altogether and buy into a regional water authority.

Reading has purchased all riverfront land to keep it free from development. Its citizens get rebates for low-flow toilets and washing machines, and a crew regularly inspects municipal water pipes for leaks. Hechenbleikner says all that costs money.

"We are sort of doing this on our own and I think what would really help is if state or federal government could financially assist some in this kind of thing."

Reading is not the only player making a difference on the Ipswich. Ironically, most increases in summer water use go toward keeping lawns and athletic fields green. Marty Tilton is grounds foreman of Ipswich River Park. He says a one-time application of a tiny mineral product spread across his sports complex has helped the soil retain nutrients and moisture. "We were told it would take a year or so to see the benefits of it, but we saw immediate benefit," he says. "We are using probably one-third of the water to irrigate the lawn. And it helps [us] be good neighbors to the Ipswich River here."

Kerry Mackin with the Ipswich River Watershed Association says it is grassroots efforts like those at Ipswich River Park and by citizens in the watershed that will ultimately restore the river for future generations. "We have a wonderful asset here. We should be treating it as a wonderful asset. This is what will sustain us. If we take care of the river, the river will take care of us."