Salem Evening News staff
Anyone who doubts that there is a water shortage on the Ipswich River should take a drive to its headwaters.
In Wilmington, tucked amid office complexes and subdivisions and buried under a four-lane highway, is a murky, stagnant ditch. A small, green sign on busy Route 28 identifies the waterway.
The Ipswich River most people think of moves slowly but powerfully through Bradley Palmer State Park and the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary.
In North Andover and Wilmington this summer, parts of the river have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a dumping ground for tires.
"When we were kids, the river never used to be like this," said Chris O'Dea-Gray, who grew up on North Reading's Chestnut Street, which crosses the river. "We could swim here all summer."
On a recent sunny, cool afternoon she spent time with an old friend and their children at the newly opened Ipswich River Park in North Reading. The park has a huge parking lot, tennis courts, open areas and nature trails. It is beautiful.
The river the park takes its name from is another story.
Kate Carbone, who still lives on Chestnut Street, pointed toward the river.
"See all that muck?" she asked, motioning to a sandbar surrounded by purple loosestrife. "That was all water."
Upstream and down, there are signs that the Ipswich River is in distress.
In Middleton, at the United States Geological Survey gauge used to measure stream flow, there was no flow at all on a recent, midsummer's day.
The only things moving were the millions of mosquitoes, which must find the stagnant water and the truck tires emerging from the river bottom an ideal breeding ground.
"The river is basically a series of ponds like this," said Mass. Audubon Society biologist Lou Wagner, who is working nearly full time for the environmental agency on the Ipswich River issue.
He stood next to the gauge that showed the river at a level of .14 inches, almost as low as it was during the 1995 drought.
Just upstream from the gauge, under a bridge, it would be easy to cross the river on rocks and dried up silt without getting your feet wet.
To environmentalists, there is a logical reason for the river's condition: Abuse of a natural resource.
It was this sentiment that earned the river the dubious distinction of being named one of America's 20 most endangered rivers by a national environmental group.
Meanwhile, cities and towns continue pumping billions of gallons a year from the river and its aquifers to meet the demand of nearly a half-million residents, thousands of businesses and dozens of golf courses, to name just a few of the river's uses.
But to the two friends and their children fishing on an upstream stretch of river, the political and environmental battle is irrelevant.
What they wonder about is whether their children will ever be able to do what they did when they were kids.
"This was always full and flowing very fast," said
Carbone. "I don't know what happened. It's weird."