Water Wise Communities Handbook

Water wise communities are cities and towns that recognize that wise management of water resources is essential to quality of life, economic opportunity, and ecological health. This handbook identifies 20 water wise tools that communities can use to protect water supplies, manage stormwater, preserve open space, educate residents, and restore the Ipswich River and its tributary streams.


The Ipswich River flows through the heart of Massachusetts’ North Shore and Essex County Natural Heritage Area before reaching the ocean at Plum Island Sound. It supplies water for more than 330,000 people and supports a rich and diverse ecosystem for wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and scenic beauty. The river historically supported productive fisheries, including river herring, shad, and brook trout. Clammers still dig for steamers and quahogs in the Ipswich River’s tidal flats.

This tremendous water resource is now at risk. The Ipswich River has been identified as one of the most endangered rivers in the nation, a stressed basin in Massachusetts, and impaired under the Federal Clean Water Act. It often runs dry during periods of peak summer demand, due to water withdrawals and wastewater exports that overburden streams and aquifers. Meanwhile, manmade structures such as dams and culverts alter natural flow patterns and block fish passage. The effects of these hydrologic alterations include a decline in water quality, loss of critical habitats, and loss of flow-dependent fish and other aquatic fauna. More information on watershed hydrology and the causes of the Ipswich River’s “water deficit,” including diagrams of the pre- and post-development water cycle, is available here.

Despite the severity of these problems, extensive studies by the US Geological Survey (USGS), state agencies, and watershed partners show that the Ipswich River’s flow problems can be solved. The Ipswich River Watershed Action Plan recommends management options to “balance the water budget,” and a report prepared by Ipswich River Fisheries Restoration Task Group sets forth flow restoration goals to sustain the river’s target community of native fish.

This handbook translates these broad goals and management options into a set of specific, concrete actions that communities can take to manage water wisely and restore the Ipswich River. Under Massachusetts’ tradition of home rule, cities and towns have broad authority to manage water and land resources. The handbook is therefore written for an audience of municipal managers, including town managers and mayors, selectmen, city councils, conservation commissions, planning board members, and public works and water departments.

Using the Handbook

The handbook provides a checklist of 20 water-wise tools that communities can use to manage watershed resources and restore the Ipswich River. The core of the handbook is a set of fact sheets that provide an overview of each tool, local examples to illustrate its application, and links to additional resources. The Water Wise Communities index provides quick links to the checklist and fact sheets.

The 20 water-wise tools are organized by strategy: planning tools, regulatory tools, economic tools, infrastructure tools, and outreach tools. Generally, they may also be considered by function — water conservation, stormwater management, and land protection — though some tools address multiple functions.

Planning tools use transparent public processes to develop comprehensive plans to address community goals. They integrate available data, summarize the current status of municipal programs, and create a blueprint for future action. Planning is a core function for a water wise community; without it, cities and towns will be unable to develop long-range plans and measure progress against established goals and targets. To be effective, plans must not be left to gather dust on a shelf; rather, they must clearly identify implementation steps and delineate responsibilities among municipal staff and partners.

Regulatory tools are enforceable requirements placed on residents and businesses in a community. They may take the form of town bylaws, city ordinances, and supporting rules and regulations.* Regulatory tools affecting watersheds may fall under municipal planning and zoning rules, general bylaws, or water department operating policies. They often create permitting requirements, and should clearly identify the municipal authority responsible for permitting and enforcement, such as the planning board, conservation commission, water board, or department of public works. Regulatory tools should be linked to outreach programs to educate residents about the need for and terms of new bylaws and regulations. Enforcement is crucial — even the most thoughtful bylaw will be ineffectual if enforcement is lax or nonexistent. Local requirements for adopting bylaws may vary according to the terms of individual municipal charters. Consultation with town counsel is strongly advised before any new bylaw is adopted.

Economic tools are incentive-based approaches that use price signals, subsidies, taxes, or fees to drive behavior change and address inefficiencies. Some economic tools may also generate funds for environmental protection. For example, water rates may not account for the full cost of providing water, in terms of the ecological damage from water withdrawals and need for future system expansions if water is used wastefully. When these impacts are no longer subsidized, higher water rates for nonessential uses like lawn watering can provide an incentive to use water more efficiently. Depending on the rate structure, efficient water rates may also help pay for water conservation and river restoration activities.

Infrastructure tools use engineering, maintenance, or construction to accomplish water wise goals. Infrastructure projects often involve municipal departments of engineering and/or public works. Maintenance of physical infrastructure such as water lines and stormwater management sites is a critical function that is sometimes neglected, but can achieve meaningful environmental results. Municipal properties also provide a laboratory for innovative projects. Construction of innovative infrastructure, such as green roofs or low-impact development techniques to manage stormwater, can help communities gain experience and publicize these approaches to residents, businesses, and developers. Creative engineering is also required for many river restoration projects, such as dam removals and channel bank stabilization.

Outreach tools offer education and technical assistance to help residents and businesses adopt water wise behaviors. They can encompass a range of approaches, from water bill inserts and mailings to websites to training and extension programs. Successful outreach tools will also apply social marketing techniques to identify and target the barriers and motivations for the desired change in behavior.

The water wise tools described in this handbook are intended to guide municipal managers through the process of developing effective programs to manage water resources and watershed lands. While the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA) strongly encourages communities to adopt the water wise tools described in this handbook, the specific bylaws and programs presented should be viewed as examples that move in the right direction; their inclusion does not imply full endorsement by IRWA.

*Because the majority of communities in the Ipswich River watershed are towns, this handbook uses “bylaws” as a shorthand term for the local laws passed by cities and towns. References to “bylaws” should be understood to encompass city ordinances as well.

Water Wise Communities: Index

  1. Master plan for smart growth
  2. Integrated water resources management plan
  3. Comprehensive open space plan
  4. Water use restriction bylaw
  5. Outdoor water use bylaw
  6. Private well bylaw
  7. Stormwater management program and bylaws
  8. Open space residential design bylaw
  9. Source water protection program and bylaw
  10. Non-zoning wetlands bylaw
  11. Conservation water rate structure
  12. Water bank or offset program
  13. Stormwater fee or utility
  14. Rebate program
  15. Dedicated funding source for land acquisition
  16. Water audits and leak detection
  17. LID demonstration projects on municipal property
  18. Habitat restoration on municipal property
  19. Outreach program
  20. Water conservation coordinator