top of page


Little River Subwatershed Information

Municipalities: Newbury, Newburyport.

Estimated Population: 9225

General Description: This subwatershed contains the Newburyport Industrial Park, commercial retail properties, an inactive, unlined landfill in Newburyport, an active landfill in Newbury, agricultural land, as well as protected open space under state and private ownership. It is located in the northernmost part of the Parker River watershed and is a major influence on the water quality to the most downstream segment of the Parker River. The Little River subwatershed is the second largest subwatershed in the Parker River Watershed, after the Mill River subwatershed. Undeveloped land use has remained the same in the last decade (estimated to be 4600 acres in 1991 and 4625 acres in 1999). Residential land use is up from 996 acres in 1991 to 1592 acres in 1999.

Land Area: 6866 acres (10.7 square miles)

Land Use as of 1999: Undeveloped – 4625 acres (67% of the subwatershed, Forest is 31%)

Residential – 1592.5 acres (23% of the subwatershed)

Commercial/Industrial – 649 acres (9% of the subwatershed)

Named Tributaries: none

Lakes and Ponds: Quills Pond

Rapid Watershed Assessment: The proportion of impervious cover in this subwatershed is estimated to be 10.5% based upon 1999 land use information. There has been little change in impervious area in this subwatershed when compared to the 1991 land use information. This amount of impervious area indicates that the subwatershed is likely to be affected by urbanization. These affects include greater stormwater runoff and flooding, alteration of stream habitat, impacts
to stream water quality, and a declining stream biodiversity. Aquatic life is also affected. Although the indications are that this subwatershed is affected by urbanization there is an opportunity to improve conditions. Shellfish (recreational oyster fishery) is the primary sensitive resource in the tidal portion of the subwatershed.

Water Quality Information: Water quality in this subwatershed is degraded. The water quality standards are not met in this subwatershed due to various sources of pollution. This subwatershed has a highly sensitive designated use (shellfishing). Information from a number of sources indicate that this subwatershed exceeds the fecal coliform bacteria standard. Stormwater and non-point source pollution from the Newburyport Industrial Park and some agricultural land use appear to be the primary cause of this exceedance.

A recently completed study by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission indicates that non-point source pollution is a major contributor of pollution in this subwatershed. In addition, sub basins in the upper portions of this subwatershed have high percentages of impervious area, which contribute to poor water quality. Consistent with this information are the findings of the Division of Marine Fisheries Shellfish Program. Their assessment of water quality reveal that the highest levels of fecal coliform in the Little River are found between Hale Street and Hanover Street.

Shellfishing standards are exceeded during dry and wet weather conditions on a regular basis. While there is little shellfish in the Little River (except for a recreational oyster fishery), the quality of water in the Little River has a direct affect on the water quality of the Parker River. A dye study conducted by the Division of Marine Fisheries and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration revealed that the Little River affects an area of the Parker River one mile downstream of the mouth of the Little River.

According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society Minibay Study nearly 50% of the fecal coliform bacteria found in the Parker River portion of Plum Island Sound comes from the Little River subwatershed. However, the Little River contributes less than 10% when compared to all potential loadings to Plum Island Sound (Parker River, Little River, Rowley-Egypt Rivers, Ipswich River estuary, Ipswich River, Miles River and Kimball Brook).

A 1994 survey conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection Division of Watershed Management included 17 sampling stations, which were sampled during dry, low flow conditions. High phosphorous concentrations and fecal coliform (700-800 colonies per 100 ml) were found at some monitoring stations. Some tributaries to the Little River also showed elevated phosphorous.

Recommendations: As indicated by the existing water quality monitoring data, the Little River does not achieve its designated uses. The causes are attributed to non-point source pollution and stormwater runoff. It is recommended that the City of Newburyport inspect the sanitary sewer system in the Industrial Park for breaks and leaks and other potential sources of pollution.

Efforts should also be directed to septic system maintenance, especially in the Town of Newbury. Better housekeeping practices to minimize the attraction of flocks of birds and other wildlife will help to reduce sources of pollution. It is also recommended that government agencies continue to assist agricultural operations with the implementation of best management practices to control non-point source pollution. Causes of flooding in the Newburyport Industrial Park need to be investigated and corrected.

(Data obtained from the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, Massachusetts Watershed Initiative, 2002 Watershed Assessment Report)

bottom of page