About the River
So, what is the Ipswich River Watershed, anyway? The Ipswich River is a small, lovely coastal river in northeastern Massachusetts, which flows a meandering course of about 45 river miles from its source to the sea. Its watershed is all the land which “sheds water,” or drains, into the Ipswich River. Beginning in headwater streams in eastern Middlesex and northeastern Essex Counties, the watershed includes all or part of 21 communities. Find out more about the river: Fun Facts About the River or Ipswich River for Kids!, two of our popular fact sheets.
The Ipswich River Watershed
The watershed is more than just land which drains into a river, though. It is also a large and complex ecosystem. Water is the element which brings the land to life, and connects all the natural and human communities.
The Ipswich River connects 21 communities in northeastern Massachusetts, flowing from headwaters in Wilmington and North Andover through the towns of Reading, North Reading, Middleton, and Topsfield before reaching the sea at Ipswich. It winds through low hills, meadows, and wetlands and gathers water from dozens of tributary streams over a 155 square mile watershed area before emptying into Plum Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine. The river’s estuary is part of the Great Marsh, an extensive salt marsh ecosystem widely recognized for its outstanding ecological, economic and recreational value, and the Parker River/ Essex Bay Area of Critical Environmental Concern, one of the most important shellfish areas in the state. The Ipswich River provides outstanding recreational opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and birdwatching, and is the lifeblood of the Essex National Heritage Area, federally designated because of the region’s unique historic, cultural and natural resources. Our Ipswich clams are famous nationwide.
The Ipswich River and its watershed have supported a rich, diverse ecosystem for thousands of years. This small river graces the region, providing outstanding habitat for myriad creatures which live here. In the early 1600′s, Captain John Smith was so awed by the river’s bounty that he called this the “land of promise.” Today, minks, otters, fishers, seals, bitterns, harriers, least terns, wood ducks, wild turkeys, barred owls, spotted turtles, wood frogs, brook trout, river herring and striped bass are some of the creatures you might see on a trip from source to sea. Substantial portions of the watershed are state-designated as critical habitats because of the rare species and exemplary aquatic habitats they contain.
The Ipswich River Watershed includes some of the most outstanding scenery in Massachusetts, both inland and along the coast. The landscape of low glacially-formed hills blanketed with pines, oaks, maples, ash and other trees, has been shaped over millennia by the Ipswich River and its tributary streams. The region’s agricultural past is still in evidence, with farm fields and tracts reclaimed by forest, bordered by classic New England stone walls. Swamps dominated by red maple, Atlantic white cedar, buttonbush, alder, highbush blueberry and many other wetland plants play a key role in the region’s ecology, and their protection helps retain the region’s natural beauty. Many ponds and lakes provide the dance of light upon water so many of us love – and places to swim, fish and canoe, to boot.
The Ipswich River is what connects all these parts of the landscape into an ecological whole. The river system is also the source of drinking water for more than 330,000 people in 14 communities – one of the most important natural resources in Massachusetts.
We invite you to learn more about the Ipswich River!