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State officials are considering tighter restrictions on the withdrawing of water from the Ipswich River Basin in light of new evidence the practice may be adversely impacting the health of the river. The restrictions - which may be prepared in proposal form by the fall - could force municipal water systems to increase water limits on their customers.
Fourteen communities, including Reading, North Reading, and Wilmington, supply their drinking water systems either directly from the river or from ground water that feeds it.
A study by the US Geological Survey in 2000 concluded what many environmentalists have long argued: that the withdrawal of water is contributing to a problem in which the flow of the river during the summer drops to levels that endanger fish and other wildlife. The low flows also make the 45-mile riverway less available for canoeing and other recreation.
The study said the impacts of water withdrawal were most pronounced in the upper part of the river, in communities such as Reading, North Reading, and Wilmington, according to Duane LeVangie, who runs the water management program for the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said the impacts are greater in the upper regions because the watershed feeding the river is relatively small in that area.
LeVangie said his office is developing a new strategy to address the problem of low river flow that could include more restrictive water measures. The various municipal water suppliers, for instance, might see the amount of water they are allowed to draw from the river reduced, or they might be required to impose tighter water use restrictions on their consumers.
''Everything at this point is on the table,'' said LeVangie, who anticipates his office having proposals ready by fall.
Water officials in North Reading, Reading, and Wilmington said their towns appreciate the need to protect the river and are already helping in that effort. They have established public education programs urging conservation, they said, have put water restrictions in place to protect river flow and to ensure they can meet peak water demands, and have sought alternative sources of water.
''We are certainly willing to help wherever we can to minimize low flows on the Ipswich River,'' said Michael Woods, superintendent of Wilmington's water and sewer department. But he said he is skeptical about how much more communities that depend on the river can do.
''It's a very difficult situation that many, many people are wrestling with,'' he said. ''There are no simple solutions.''
Any new restrictions on water withdrawals would take the form of added conditions placed on the permits the state requires for communities that withdraw water. LeVangie said that could occur by the end of the year.
Reading is one of two towns withdrawing water from the river that does not have a permit. When the state began the permitting system in the 1980s, Reading was allowed to remain under the previous system in which it only had to register its water usage. But LeVangie said his office is exploring how to include all of the communities in any new restrictions.
The deliberations come even as the municipal water systems are issuing renewed calls for consumers to conserve water. Under an agreement they reached in 1997, the suppliers issue that call every time water flows in the Ipswich fall below a minimum level set by the state. That threshhold has been reached in each of the last six summers; this year, in July.
But LeVangie said the public education effort urging conservation has not had a significant impact on usage. He said since the program began in 1997, officials have learned ''a lot more'' about the impact of water withdrawals on the river and are ready to make more substantive changes to address the water flow problem.
Kerry Mackin, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, said tougher action by the state is long overdue.
''We've had good information about the causes of low flow problems since 1999 or at the latest 2000,'' Mackin said. ''And here we are a couple of years later and there still hasn't been any regulatory action taken to use that knowledge we have to protect the river more effectively.''
She said the rules should ensure ''at the very least'' that water is not used ''for nonessential purposes such as lawn watering when the river is in crisis.''
Mackin said longer-term measures, including spurring communities to seek alternative water sources, also need to be pursued.
Water department officials in Reading, Wilmington, and North Reading say their communities have obtained or are pursuing water supplies to supplement the wells they maintain along the river.
Reading, which has an emergency connection to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system in Woburn, is applying to the MWRA to purchase 600,000 gallons a day from its system, according to Peter Tassi, supervisor of the town's water treatment plant.
Wilmington is exploring the idea of hooking up to the MWRA system in Woburn, or purchasing water from another town, most likely Andover, Woods said.
North Reading has been purchasing water from Andover for about the past decade, according to Mark Clark, the town's water superintendent. He said the town is also exploring potential sites to build bedrock wells, which would be deeper and hence less likely to impact the river than the town's existing sand and gravel wells.