THINKING Like a Watershed

The Fox River is a fine demonstration of Barry Commoner’s Laws of Ecology. Law #1 is that all things are connected. This is evident in the definition of a watershed; it is the entire land area that drains to a common place. The Fox River Watershed covers over 2600 square miles of land that drain into a series of over 50 creeks that find their way to the Fox River. This is a natural system that maintains healthy habitats and biodiversity of plants and animals. However, humans have disrupted many of those connections and contributed to imbalances. Friends of the Fox River (FOTFR) is building a watershed of caretakers to recognize Law #1 and work to restore the natural system.

We All Live Downstream

Law #2 is that everything must go somewhere. In a watershed, that is downstream. In the natural river system, it is essential nutrition that produces growth and renewal.  In the early days of human settlement, the Fox River was used as a waste disposal system which produced death and destruction. The reverse in the system of growth and renewal has taken and continues to take enormous human collaboration, ingenuity, and a strong will to restore. FOTFR has been an advocate for reducing pollution and restoring habitat through actions like dam removals. To accomplish the reduction and restoration, we will require a watershed-wide approach and an understanding that we all live downstream.

Who is in Charge of Fox River Protection?

The management of a river is quite complex and it is constantly moving. It cannot be closed or taken off-line for repairs. There is not an alternative to provide the river’s services naturally and for humans. In addition to the physical challenge, there are the political boundaries. The river and its tributaries are under various jurisdictions. The Army Corps of Engineers oversee the bottom and shoreline impacts, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is in charge of the wildlife resources, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service supervises the migratory waterfowl, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency manages the water quality parameters. All of those organizations have their own regulations for protecting the resource. The watershed is home to over 1 million residents with a mix of private and public ownership, as well as a diversity of land uses from urban to agriculture. Two states, 15 counties, and over 124 municipalities all have their own set of policies and interests. So, one might ask, who is in charge of river protection? The answer is we all are.

State Representative Anna Moeller and FOTFR annual spring cleanup

Need for Collaboration

FOTFR Founder, Pat Reese visioned, in the early 1990s, that protecting and restoring the river system would require a collective voice which needs to be mobilized on a watershed scale. We have had much to celebrate in the past 30 years, in regard to public education and support, with steadily improving water quality, and a few dams removed. What we still do not have is a watershed-wide level commission that has the funding and authority to drive the actions necessary to adequately protect and restore the health of the Fox River Watershed. We do have a significant start and that venue is the Fox River Summit.

Fox River Summit

On the Wisconsin side of the watershed, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission was formed in 1960 and they developed the first comprehensive watershed plan for the Fox River in 1970 and implementation plans for the Southeastern Wisconsin Fox River Commission (SEWFRC) in 1998 and 2011. On the Illinois side, are the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (equivalent to the Commission), a handful of conservation agencies, and Fox River focused non-profit organizations. In 2012, Tom Slawski became President of Wisconsin’s Southeast Fox River Partnership. He heard conflicting messages about who did and did not care about protecting water quality relative to the state line. Due to his efforts to change the dialogue of those messages, the first Fox River Summit was born in 2013.

It has become an important annual event for sharing research, initiatives, and building partnerships, and they have all been fully funded by the SEWFRC. The spirit of the summit has led to watershed-wide projects including the Fabulous Fox River Trail and the It’s Our Fox River Day.

Sponsors of the 2022 Fox River Summit

You are invited to attend this year’s 10th Annual Fox River Summit. Program and registration information can be found at the Southeast Fox River Partnership website.

You are also invited to participate in this year’s Its Our Fox River Day – Saturday 9/17/22. Information for that event is coming soon.