Water Closet for December 19, 2014

Last Tuesday and Wednesday five inches of rain fell here sometimes at a hard slant. Yet another nor’easter returned water from the ocean to land.  Here in the center of the Ipswich River Watershed the water as measured at the south Middleton gauge rose by late Wednesday four feet above 2.6 the previous Friday. The river climbed and spread above channel banks to become a moving lake whose water flowed easterly and then northerly through town.  Low bank and floodplain bushes largely disappeared.  In the Water Closet, our shack on a raft moored on the river’s edge, excitement reigned for the first time in years.  Tuesday evening we asked, when will the rain stop? How high will the river rise?  Will this flood exceed the record Mother’s Day of 2006?

Ipswich River as seen from Mortalo Landing, Maple Street, Middleton, at flood crest after five inches of rain  -  Judy Schneider photo

Ipswich River as seen from Mortalo Landing, Maple Street, Middleton, at flood crest after five inches of rain – Judy Schneider photo

Answers soon followed.   Tuesday night the rain and wind slacked off. According to data received from the gauge via satellite to a United States Geological Survey internet site, the water height showed an ascending curve starting to level off, which it did late Wednesday afternoon at 6.4 feet.  Mean annual high water for the gauge had been passed at 4,5; the crest for this storm was below past road-covering-highs measured since recording started in 1938, and two to three feet below the record highs of 2001 and 2006.   Wednesday, near crest, Middleton Stream Team photographer Judy Schneider took over 70 photos from river landings in town. We old timers have been accused of exaggerating storms and floods in the past. There are photos of this one not just fading memories.

Let’s go up river to the headwaters in that rainstorm and follow the flood water down.  Imagine the 40 mile long, 10 mile wide watershed as a giant flattened oak with water going down instead of up as it does in plants. The tiniest twigs represent rivulets, the stouter ones small streams, large branches major tributaries and on down until the meandering trunk, the river channel now lake, is reached. As we go with the flow it should be fun just to hear the names of towns and tributaries. If only we had the descriptive Algonquian labels of 400 years ago. Alas, none are left. The tongue tied English didn’t use them so they died as did the Agawams.  For a while the Agawam River was called by the name of the people who had cultivated its floodplains for millennia. Ipswich, the name of a nostalgically remembered town in Old England, took over.

The Ipswich River at flood crest as seen from Mortalo Landing, Maple Street, Middleton.  - Judy Schneider photo

The Ipswich River at flood crest as seen from Mortalo Landing, Maple Street, Middleton.
– Judy Schneider photo

Drone-like, lets fly above the flattened oak now water and follow its descent from source to sea. When the water is deep enough we’ll shift from wings to canoe.  Rain- drops fall on roofs in northeast Burlington. There they instantly coalesce to become thin sheets flowing down slope into drainage structures leading in some newer houses to vegetated detention ponds where much enters the ground water and slows down. In the microscopic crevices of the topsoil and base soils, the water molecules’ trip to the sea may take hundreds of years.  Soil particles, bacteria and water cling together. Foreign substances are broken down, the water is cleansed.  In early December 2.2 inches of rain saturated the ground. Much of last week’s five inches of rain, more than all that received in November, stayed on the surface and ran down slopes.  Rivulets converged into streamlets that united in swales and brooks always descending. The runoff from the mall eventually found its way to Sawmill Brook and then larger Meadow Brook, Wilmington.  Soon just west of I-93 Lubbers Brook joins Meadow and a third brook to become the Ipswich River.  Where the three converge remind us of the Monongahela and Allegheny joining at Pittsburg to become the mighty Ohio.  Well, not quite, Wilmington is no great city, and the Ohio drains one third a continent compared with the Ipswich’s 155 square miles.  It is here at the juncture we imaginers launch our canoe as a few Closeteers have done before.   During floods the water moves swiftly down river under I-93 and out into broad wetlands around the Reading Town Forest. Just a decade ago, in some late summers/early falls, the greedy pumps of Reading and North Reading left the river bed dry.   The pumps now lie idle, held in reserve. Water for the towns comes from the distant Quabbin Reservoir. Thanks to beavers and no pumping, the channel once periodically dry remains fairly full year round. Wildlife abound.

The Ipswich River at flood crest as seen from Log Bridge Landing, Middleton.  The red maple and ash trees, dead trunks still standing, were drowned by beavers, not periodic floods such as last week’s seen here.  -   Judy Schneider photo

The Ipswich River at flood crest as seen from Log Bridge Landing, Middleton. The red maple and ash trees, dead trunks still standing, were drowned by beavers, not periodic floods such as last week’s seen here. – Judy Schneider photo

On east just past Route 28 Bear Meadow Brook from Cedar Swamp in Reading and west Lynnfield flows in from the south and adds to the river. Very soon after, down from the north, Martins Brook joins the flood. Its water used to be tainted with sewage from cesspools around Martins Pond.  The whole brook and river, like most in the days before the Clean Water Act, was directly or indirectly used for waste disposal. During earlier pastoral periods surface runoff contained manure from livestock.

Lovely Ipswich River Park, North Reading, soon comes up on our right.  Its landing is a favorite launching site for folks paddling up and down river. Three decades or so ago farmers raised vegetables on the flat land here.  From Route 28 east, Route 62 closely follows the river as did the Lowell-Salem Railroad up until 1926.  We can hear cars if we pay attention.  Steam engine whistles are imagined.  Dense floodplain vegetation shuts off many signs of nearby civilization for much of the river’s length.

North Reading’s old center slips astern and as we pass under Route 62.  Our canoe enters the broad meanders of flooded channel among swamp bushes and later high banks and trees on a two mile stretch down to Bostik Dam in Middleton. Pink surveyors’ flags near the dam now mark the river and wetland edges all around the dam.  As a planned dam razing nears, wetland specialists and engineers have flagged borders to include on their plans for hearings with Conservation Commissions. Some predict this large dam will be gone by 2016. The hope is that lampreys, alewives, and shad will return to spawn upriver.  Now the floodwater glides smoothly over the dam at high volume and forms a stretch of white water on the rapids below.  We’ll portage and join the exciting fast flow just down river on the mid-river Peabody-Middleton line.

Paddles through Middleton have been described here many times before; we’ll simply more or less list the swollen tributaries as they add more water.  Just down from the dam Flint Brook enters; it is a half mile long stream down from the north through land once owned by slave owner John Flint whose workers probably tilled its bottom land. Long ago this brook powered a sawmill near the river. Farmer Flint had a paper mill where Bostik buildings are now. Adhesive factory Bostik doesn’t use waterpower

Just a fifth mile from Bostik the south Middleton gauge passes to starboard. In another mile, after a long easterly passage since start, we take an abrupt turn north.  Soon Norris Brook, up from Peabody, is passed on our right. It, entering through swamp bushes, is usually not noticed even while adding much more water to the rising flood.  Flow is fast, we have but to steer to avoid high swamp dogwood bushes and beaver drowned swamp white oak and red maple trunks.  The next mile as the king fisher flies, two as the river sharply meanders, now appear as a lake, the channel hard to follow. Grasses and low bushes covering the wide flood plain are largely covered.   Shortcuts are taken across turns. The king fisher’s route is ours. The several beaver dams that often slow or require portage in this stretch are well under water.

Plaque at Log Bridge Landing

A bridge crossed the Ipswich River here from 1672 to 1972. It was along a main route from Danvers, on right, to Middleton, now with stone and bronze historical marker. The river is seen here at flood crest, December 10, 2014. – Judy Schneider photo

The Stream Team’s Farnsworth Landing on Route 114 quickly falls astern. We had to lie down in our canoe to go under the State’s badly deteriorating bridge.  The filled to the brim floodplain among the trunks of beaver drowned trees continues.   The park-landing at Log Bridge Road passes to port.  A year old beaver dam, now well under water, has replaced the bridge from Middleton to Danvers that was removed in 1972.  More flooded meadows and drowned trees are ahead.  We are making record time on the high fast flow.

This weekly Water Closet column usually filled by only a thousand words is spilling over and we are only halfway to saltwater.  Next week we’ll return and continue on down if mood allows. With luck we’ll have another reservoir-filling, non-road-threatening flood.  Stream Team kayakers are now planning a trip on the river while the water is still high.

And good water news from too long dry California. El Nino has blessed folks there with much rain. Five to ten feet of new snow was added last week to the state’s storage in the high Sierra Nevada.   We hope above average rain and snow will continue there to in time replenish their greatly diminished aquifers.  Ours here are topped off and overflowing.




Precipitation Data* for Month of: Sept Oct Nov Dec
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 3.77 4.40 4.55 4.12
 2014 Central Watershed Actual 2.58 8.09 4.60 7.4 as of 12/16**


Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

For Dec 16, 2014   Normal . . . 56 CFS                       Current Rate  . . . Unavailable

*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Nov. 

**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for Dec..

Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.

THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584