1A. NORTH COASTAL WATERSHEDS: Physical and social setting

The North Coastal Watersheds (NCW) encompasses a growing coastal region north of Boston. The NCW spans 27 cities and towns, an area defined by its primarily coastal influence, with several small rivers that drain directly into the ocean, rather than the more common watershed definition surrounding one large river.


Many people only envision the land divided by its political boundaries, such as the states of New England or Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. However, the land can also be divided by its geology, hydrology, climate, and the distribution of its flora and fauna into physiographic divisions and biological ecoregions.

The North Coastal area is contained within two ecoregions; the Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills (from Salem Sound northward) and the Boston Basin (including the Saugus River and southward, extending beyond the North Coastal Watersheds). The Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills consist of low rolling hills with a range of generally acidic soil types. Various estimates by experts place the number of natural communities and rare species and habitats at roughly 150.

The Boston Basin is almost entirely urban and suburban in character with relatively few natural communities. Three major rivers drain into the Boston Basin (south of the North Coastal Watersheds) and the Saugus River drains the ecoregion along its northern boundaries. Experts place the number of natural communities, rare species and habitats within the Boston Basin at 38.[1] 

The NCW has been described as a study in contrasts, marked by extensive areas of open space, rural towns and highly urbanized communities with all or portions of 27 communities dispersed over its 168 square miles. The glacial history of the area combined with the low relief has resulted in the formation of numerous wetlands, lakes and ponds and swamps along the main river valleys through out the watershed. The topography of the watershed is characterized by small hills, which reach altitudes of about 350 feet above sea level, and low stream gradients. The rivers within the watershed are comparatively small, tidal and historically have been heavily exploited. Some of the major rivers are the Essex, Annisquam, Danvers, Saugus, Pines, and the North River. The Watershed is “naturally” divided into subregions: The Saugus/Pines River Estuary, Nahant Bay, Salem Sound, Cape Ann, and portions of Salisbury and Amesbury.

Physical Features

Barrier islands and salt marshes: Starting in the northern reach of the watershed, portions of the extensive Hampton and Seabrook Marshes of southern New Hampshire extend southward into Amesbury and Salisbury. Barrier island beaches make up a significant portion of the North Coastal Watersheds coastline and include Salisbury Beach, Cranes Beach, Wingaersheek, and to the south, Revere Beach. The salt marshlands located behind these barrier islands are extensive. Of particular value is the 15,000-acre Great Marsh that extends over portions of four watersheds including the Merrimack, Parker, Ipswich, and North Coastal (the Cape Anne portion of NCW). The Great Marsh is the largest contiguous salt marsh north of Long Island, New York.

Saugus River: Notable features within the southern reaches of the watershed include Reedy Meadow, a distinctive 540-acre freshwater marshland, which along with Lake Quannapowitt (in Wakefield) form the headwaters of the Saugus River. At the mouth of the Saugus is the equally important 900-acre Pines River/Saugus River Marsh locally known as Rumney Marsh.

Rocky peninsulas: The predominant shoreform of the North Shore coastline consists of rocky peninsulas interspersed with embayments, pockets of salt marsh, and estuaries (drowned river valleys) fronted offshore by rock islands. Cape Ann provides Massachusetts with some of its most distinctive rocky coastline.

Lakes and ponds: Within the NCW boundaries there are a total of 85 lakes and ponds, 39 of which are greater than 10 acres. Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield is the largest at 254 acres followed by Chebacco Lake in Essex at 209 acres. Twenty of the lakes and ponds have been designated either as Outstanding Resource Waters per (314 CMR 4.00) or as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) per MGL Ch. 21A § 2(7). Lake Wenham (on the Beverly-Wenham line) is hydrologically outside the watershed, but is included in this study because it is a major source of drinking water for the watershed.

Water quality: The DEP DWM has conducted water quality surveys in the NCW since 1975, most recently in 1997-1998. The previous surveys were conducted in 1987-1988 for Salem and Beverly Harbors and their tributaries, Salem Sound and Marblehead Harbor, Manchester Harbor, Gloucester Inner and Outer Harbors and a segment of the Annisquam River. Data from the 1987 survey indicated that high coliform bacteria densities and/or low dissolved oxygen impaired the North River, Goldthwait Brook, South River Channel, Crane River, Bass River, Salem Sound (at the WWTP outfall) and several coves of Inner Gloucester Harbor. Results of the 1988 survey indicated that the waters of the NCW generally did not support their designated uses.[2] Twenty-five waterbodies within the North Coastal Watersheds, both fresh and marine are listed on the Federal 303d list of impaired waters (see Appendix F). The comprehensive 1997/1998 survey[3] focused on water quality and fishery resources. It included:

·         Water chemistry measurements and  detailed nutrient analyses at river and marine stations on 18 dates

·         Survey of soft-shell clam habitat

·         Summarized available catch data for recreational and commercial fisheries

·         Limited comparisons were made of the study results to the 1965 DMF estuarine study of Salem Sound.


                Resource industries: The abundance of open beaches, coastal wetlands and harbors are used by residents and non-residents in support of a host of outdoor recreational activities including swimming, fishing, boating, hiking, and hunting. The dominant resource industries include commercial fishing for finfish, lobsters and shellfish particularly within upper North Shore communities of Essex, Ipswich and Gloucester.

Social Setting

One of the NCW’s foremost assets is its “quality of life.” This asset is derived from the unique juxtaposition of historic towns, intact open spaces and neighborhoods with densely populated urban areas. However, in a recent survey,[4] NCW residents responded that:

·         The most important problem facing their community today is development and “sprawl” (42%);

·         “Too much development” is the primary concern (44%), especially around traffic issues (30%);

·         The quality of life has gotten worse in the last 3 years (46% “worse” versus 21% “better”).

After nearly 400 years of intensive human influence, the NCW’s resources, while not always pristine, provide home to nearly 500,000 people, support vibrant communities with clean drinking water and a diversity of natural, historic and recreational opportunities. Today the character and resources of this watershed are under increasing threat from “low density sprawl.” Habitat fragmentation is considered by many to be one of the most serious threats to maintaining biological diversity. The watershed’s natural resources are increasingly being required to serve a multitude of conflicting uses.

Subregions of the NCW face unique sets of issues. Addressing the numerous, diverse and often competing problems across the watershed requires a range of solutions. In the non-sewered areas primarily to the north in Gloucester and Essex, the main issues are:

·         controlling and managing growth;

·         concerns with enforcement of regulations controlling subsurface waste disposal (Title V);

·         excessive demands on local water supplies; and

·         closed shellfish beds.

In the Salem Sound area concerns are primarily:

·         nonpoint source pollution on Salem Sound’s streams and coastal waters

·         degraded recreational and commercial coastal resources, i.e., contaminated fishing areas, closed shellfish beds, beach closures, and invasive species;

·         maintaining and enhancing open natural spaces, i.e., estuaries, stream buffers and forests;

·         protecting and conserving the drinking water supply;

·         fostering sustainable growth and redevelopment.

Problems facing the Saugus River and Nahant Bay/Broad Sound systems include:

·         water shortages;

·         low flows in the Saugus river;

·         flooding;

·         Combined Sewer Overflows; and

·         closure of public beaches due to bacterial contamination.

The primary concerns in the Salisbury area relate to:

·         controlling and managing growth;

·         enforcement of regulations controlling subsurface waste disposal (Title V);

·         localized flooding and coastal erosion; and

·         the closure of shellfish beds.


The North Coastal Watersheds are a place “where people have always wanted to live.” Since its earliest beginnings people have moved into and occupied the land. For thousands of years, the relationship of the Native American populations to their environment revolved around the wheel of the seasons.

Pre-industrial agriculture: A dramatic change in land use occurred in the 1620s with the arrival of European settlers who were attracted in part by the area’s abundant and varied natural resources. This period saw the replacement of the traditional native seasonal village system, with its shifting agriculture and its hunter/gatherer activities, to permanent villages employing agricultural practices that raised crops and managed domesticated animals. Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land and sea, not to mention the land itself, as commodities. Over time as the population of colonists increased, the resources in their immediate reach became depleted. However there existed a seemingly endless bounty of new and unexploited resources. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a tendency toward expansion.[5]

Industrialization: America’s Industrial Revolution began in Massachusetts and neighboring Rhode Island. The development of mills powered by water transformed many of the Commonwealth’s water bodies by converting them from free flowing to impoundments with controlled releases. By the early 19th century, the North Coastal area became one of the nation’s major centers for shipping, shipbuilding, and trading with Europe and Asia. During the latter half of the 19th century, the creation of modern industrial infrastructure made possible the formation of large industrial-based cities such as Lynn, Salem, and Peabody. Industrialization also spurred the growth of the fishing industry as railroads and later the road systems allowed the shipment of fresh fish to inland markets. The industrial economy placed immense stresses on the environment as factories and municipal sewage systems discharged huge concentrated flows of all forms of waste into the waters of the Commonwealth. By the 1870’s deforestation reached its peak with only 10% of the state remaining under a wooded condition. The integrity of the region’s abundant and remarkably diverse collection of natural resources, working landscapes, historic villages, cities and towns became increasingly threatened due to over-exploitation, pollution, and an ever-increasing population.

Conservation: During this same period of industrialization, the North Shore’s scenic coastline and abundant natural resources attracted an increasingly mobile public, becoming one of Americas’ first summer resorts. The combination of environmental pressure and public interest sparked some of America’s earliest conservation activities. Visionaries such as Alice Town Lincoln and Charles Eliot sought to guard against indiscriminate development, to protect scenic and historic places, and established protective institutions such as The Trustees of Reservations, the first land trust in the world, established in 1891. Changes internal and external to New England brought about significant changes as the major industries of tanning, shoe making and chemical manufacturing closed or departed for other areas.

Suburbanization: While the North Shore has been historically one of the slower growing areas, its exceptional scenic and cultural resources are now threatened by unplanned patterns of growth. In the 1950s through 1980s much of the region evolved into a suburb of Boston, as commuter rail service and highway construction linked the North Shore with Boston and to the rest of the nation’s population centers. Recently the North Shore has since become increasingly attractive as bedroom communities for the region’s burgeoning high tech industries.

Sprawl: A host of new changes and threats are currently presenting themselves. Often referred to as “sprawl,” unplanned growth results in a decentralized and incoherent pattern of development that consumes large amounts of open space, overburdens existing infrastructure and resources, and damages our environment. Between 1950 and 1990, the population of Massachusetts grew by only 28% while the amount of developed land grew by 188%. Sprawl usually results in the abandonment of our historic urban and village centers accompanied by the consumption of land for poorly planned development in our growing suburbs and rural communities. The negative impacts of sprawl on our communities extends beyond the aesthetic. Sprawl affects quality of life in ways that are both alarming and often irreversible, including:

·         the destruction and fragmentation of important wildlife habitat;

·         increases in traffic and air pollution;

·         water supply degradation due to polluted runoff from paved surfaces and disturbed soils;

·         water shortages in our rivers, streams, ponds and aquifers as groundwater recharge areas are developed; and

·         an increase in local taxes to pay for greater infrastructure such as sewer lines and school buildings.

Clearly, sprawl is a direct threat to the quality of our water and air, the beauty of our landscape and the character of our communities. It also jeopardizes our long-term economic well-being by squandering natural resources needed to support economic development while increasing the cost of infrastructure and community services. As housing tracts and strip malls replace open spaces and critical wildlife habitats, resource-based industries, such as farming, forestry, fishing, tourism, and recreation also suffer. Ironically, as the impacts of sprawl accumulate, communities may begin to react negatively to growth proposals and foster “anti-growth” sentiments in which innovative, appropriately sited and economically beneficial development projects are spurned or discouraged. Our natural resources are limited and physically finite yet are increasingly being required to serve a multitude of conflicting and competing uses. The key to protecting the NCW’s exceptional natural and cultural heritage is ongoing interaction between environmental stewards, government representatives, and the general public.


Formerly, EOEA’s Massachusetts Watershed Initiative (MWI) would have overseen the implementation of the Action Plan. With the dissolution of that Initiative, implementation will be accomplished in a more decentralized manner – primarily via local watershed groups, with some oversight and input from EOEA and other Watershed Team representatives. For the NCW, the Watershed Team still meets (on a monthly basis at the Mass Audubon headquarters in Beverly), as an information-sharing source and funding-opportunity source for its constituent watershed groups. EOEA lauds the Team members for doing so on their own initiative, and directs interested parties to contact them (see list in Appendix B).

Despite the organizational changes at EOEA, the principles of watershed management are still adhered to by EOEA and the continuing development of watershed based action plans underscores that commitment.  The ultimate goal, the improvement of the environmental health of all 27 watersheds, is just as achievable today as at any other time.  The principle of shared responsibility for our watershed health was a key element of the Initiative and remains critical to the success of any watershed based action plan.   This watershed action plan is designed to outline those priorities for adoption not only by government organizations but businesses and private citizens as well.

The Initiative achieved a major milestone by bringing together local citizens, government representatives and active environmental organizations.  These stakeholders' continuing interaction provide testimony to their commitment for watershed health and proof that people can work together to face the watershed issues they share.  Moving forward on their recommendations made in this Plan will prove their ability to make significant improvements without the need for continuing state intervention.  

Many funding programs, sponsored by the Commonwealth and others, remain to support these local efforts – details appear in Appendix G. EOEA remains committed to improving and supporting watershed health throughout the Commonwealth.  More details concerning the previous functioning of the Massachusetts Watershed Initiative appear in Appendix A1. It is the intent of this document to be utilized as a strategic planning document for the North Coastal Watersheds Team and its constituent members for calendar years 2004-2008.

The priority project list represents the Watershed Team’s consensus judgment on projects that should receive prioritized funding through the various funding mechanisms available to local watershed groups. The goal is to facilitate locally based problem identification and problem solving and coordinate implementation activities among all parties. The specific program goals of this action plan are (with their corresponding MWI program elements):

1. Open Space: Foster Sustainable Development (people-oriented).

2. Habitat: Conserve habitat and wildlife (nature-oriented).

3. Water Quality: Improve water quality and water-related human health.

4. Water Quantity: Better water management / flood control.

5. Recreation: Foster recreational use of natural resources and economic growth related to recreation.

6. Outreach: Local capacity building, outreach, and education.