The Other Face of Climate Change
August 19, 2016
On August 19, I decided to turn away from houses tumbling into the ocean to investigate the other face of climate change; heat, drought and dying rivers. Unfortunately I had the prime example right in my hometown of Ipswich Massachusetts, and the best person to talk to was riverine biologist Wayne Castonguay, director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.
The day before I had taken photographs of the bone dry Ipswich River in the center of town. As far back as the 17th Century the river supplied water for people, fish and agriculture as well as powering scores of grain mills, saw mills, rum distilleries and textile plants.
Now the river was dying and the main culprit was people’s penchant for watering their lush green, over-fertilized lawns. Wayne explained that like the situation on Plum Island, the death of this river was not a natural disaster but a manmade tragedy.
To explore that thesis Wayne agreed to take us on a 35-mile exploration of the waterway. While Geoffrey Day, director of the Sea-run Brook Trout Coalition drove, I sat in the back seat scribbling indecipherable notes.
As we left the IRWA ‘s Riverbend headquarters we passed by green pumpkin fields that were in marked contrast to the crunchy brown lawns you saw in the rest of Ipswich.
Apparently farmers had been able to obtain exemptions from the mandatory watering ban, but now the town only had less than a 20-day supply of water and the head of the water department feared that there would not be enough water to fight another fire. There had already been several fires ignited by overheated power strips used to run fans and air conditioners, including one on Plum Island.
Ipswich had so little water because it was at the bottom of the river that supplied over 30 million gallons of water a day to the other 13 cities and towns that drew water out of the river’s upstream watershed.
I asked Wayne what would happen when the town actually ran out of water. Public opinion had it that the town could start buying water from the Quabbin Reservoir that supplied water to Boston.
But there were no pipes running from Quabbin to Ipswich, so the state’s Department of Environmental Affairs would probably declare an emergency so the town could pump down their public wells to fill their reservoirs. But this would leave the level of the town’s underground aquifers so low that they couldn’t refill the river, and could permanently damage them as well.
But our first stop was the Willowdale dam, home of the Foote Brothers canoe and kayak rental service. Bart Foote came out to show us the U.S. Geological Survey’s river gauge that had been recording the depth of the river below their dam for over a hundred years. Today the only water trickling through their gauge was from tiny seeps and leaks in the dam.
The riffle area below the dam, which should be waist deep in cool green trout filled water, was still and choked with weeds. A few pond fish were still existing in muddy weed-filled holes but predators had eaten most of the cold-water river fish as their holes had dried up and disappeared.
Geoffrey and Wayne unclogged the fish ladder and we heard the sound of running water. It would be the only time we would hear it all day long.
When I went home I checked the USGS water gauge and saw the tiny blip where the flow of water went from less than a cubic foot of water a second flowing through their weir to slightly over a cubic foot of water per second from when they had unclogged the fish ladder. It was the lowest flow in over a hundred years. Normally you might have as much as four feet of water boiling down through the sluiceway.
We passed by Gravelly Brook, the only undeveloped tributary leading into the river. The tributary was still running fast and was filled with trout proving that even a small stream can handle drought conditions if it is not being pumped dry to water gold courses and office malls.
Like all rivers, the Ipswich River is a highly productive complex of ecosystems. The 40 miles of the meandering river contains cedar and maple swamps, beaver ponds and white water riffle habitats throughout it 500 square mile watershed. Those habitats support a rich variety of insects, crustacea, mollusks, birds, fish and mammals. At the same time it is supplying up to 30 million gallons of water a day for humans.
Most of the animals that live in a river originally evolved to live in either fresh water ponds, the ocean or on land. But they then evolved adaptations to live in rivers because riverine habitats are so productive and protective.
The rule of thumb that biologists use to determine which environment a riverine organism comes from is to see where they lay their eggs. So anatropous fish like alewives will spend their adult lives in the ocean but return to the protection of rivers and ponds to lay their eggs. But catadromous fish like eels spend their adult lives in ponds and rivers but return to the marine environment of Sargasso Sea to spawn. So rivers are crucial to both types of species at different times in their life cycles and if rivers start dying, fish in both the oceans and ponds will be diminished.
Our second stop was the South Middleton dam. As we walked along a shady path beside the riverbed, Wayne explained that when he was a boy his family used to fish in the rushing waters of the stream.
But one day his brother’s stroller rolled down the bank into the water and started to drift rapidly downstream.
It was only because Wayne’s father’s was able to throw down his rod and catch the pompom on his son’s baby bonnet that the infant was saved.
At another stop Wayne pointed to a large tract of land that used to be owned by his grandmother’s family. They had lost their farm during the depression and now the surrounding land was dotted with golf courses, athletic fields, developments and office malls—all drawing water out of the river’s depleted watershed.
But the South Middleton dam was a bright spot on the river. It was slated to be removed in 2017, which would return the river to health by recreating 56 miles of whitewater riffle habitat. All for only $150,000.
But our third stop was the Martin’s Brook, the Ipswich River’s largest tributary that runs out of Martin’s Pond. We stopped by a huge boulder sitting in the sand. Wayne clambered down to the dried out pond bottom to point out that the water in the pond should be up to his neck. Further on you could see where kids had turned the dried out riverbed into a track for dirt bikes and all terrain vehicles.
Water had been pumped out of the pond and tributary so that people could wash their cars and water their lawns. The same was true in all the other 14 towns and cities that used the river and its watershed to refill reservoirs and recharge wells. Now only 10% of the river’s normal capacity actually reaches salt water.
Wayne had made his point. This river was not dying because of a natural disaster but because of the hand of man. It would take months if not years to reverse the damage. But small steps were being made.
The day before Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker held a press conference about the severe drought using the Ipswich River as his prime example. With people like Wayne Castonguay and the IRWA leading the battle something might actually be done to reverse a hundred years of damage done to our once iconic river.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach, available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.
Bill Sargent will be leading a beach walk starting from the Plum Island Point lighthouse Sundays at 2pm. Cost $10.