Our Responsibility: Freeing the Ipswich River


In the historical town of Ipswich on the north shore of Massachusetts, the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA) is working to restore the town’s namesake river by removing the Ipswich Mills Dam. In a report filed by the Horsley Witten Group to the town, IRWA identified several goals associated with this project, including improved fish passage and habitat, improved water quality, and the reduction of liability for the town.

In August 2023, IRWA contracted with Reel Quest Films (RQF) to produce a 12-minute film titled Our Responsibility: Freeing the Ipswich River to highlight the project goals and benefits of dam removal and river restoration. To tell this story, RQF interviewed IRWA staff, the town historian, ecological and restoration professionals, and a town clammer who not only spoke to the natural history of the Ipswich River but also the importance of restoring habitat, improving water quality, and reducing flood risk in the face of climate change.

To add to the production value of the film, RQF partnered with LightHawk Conservation Flying to film the lower Ipswich River watershed from a plane. In late October 2023, LightHawk Volunteer Pilot Arlene Myers Alexander, accompanied by her husband Jack Alexander, took Jerry and Ryan on a 45-minute flight over the watershed in her Cessna Hawk XP. Being able to film from 1,000 feet allowed RQF to show the interconnectedness of the river as it flows through the town to where it drains into Ipswich Sound. Despite some light turbulence, the flight was a success and a couple clips made the final cut of the film.

Above: In October 2023, pilot Arlene Myers Alexander took Reel Quest Films cinematographers Ryan Smith (pictured) and Jerry Monkman on a flight over the lower Ipswich River to capture footage for the IRWA documentary.

Using drones, the crew captured aerial footage of the main stem of the Ipswich and some of its tributaries in the upper and lower reaches of the watershed and, with permission from The Trustees of Reservations, the mouth of the Ipswich from the Crane Estate. On the day Ryan flew his drone at the mouth, Hurricane Lee was hours away from making landfall in southern Nova Scotia. This brought high wings and swirling multi-level clouds to the region, which limited Ryan’s ability to fly but afforded him some dramatic footage of the estuary.

On March 21, 2024, IRWA premiered the film at EBSCO hall in Ipswich followed by a panel discussion with experts from American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, and MA Division of Ecological Restoration, who talked about why dam removal is so critical, why dams are being removed across New England, and what communities have to gain from river restoration. In April, the film will screen at the Ipswich Town Hall and True North Ale Co.

Ipswich residents will then have the opportunity to show their support for removing or leaving the dam in a non-binding town vote in May 2024. The Ipswich Select Board will then decide on the fate of the dam.

Watch the film’s trailer below.

Learn More:

The nonprofit Maine Rivers restored fish passage to the entire China Lake Outlet Stream with nearly a million alewives returning to China Lake one year after the project’s completion. Watch a film about this success story here.