What Does it Mean or Matter to be an Endangered River?

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On April 18, 2023, American Rivers released their 38th annual list of the 10 most endangered rivers in America (endangered rivers video). The objective of the list is to amplify the stories of each river to rally together the support necessary to address the threats they face. Currently, three factors have converged that threaten many rivers: climate change with fires and flooding, the accelerated loss in biodiversity (twice that of terrestrial animals), and the inequity and injustice upon local cultures. The listing is for publicity’s sake, without any funding or mandates, but it is an important step in addressing the problems associated with the chosen rivers.

Being Endangered

In 1999, the Fox River was seventh on the American Rivers endangered list. That designation had a very significant impact on the federal and state levels that has indirectly and directly helped efforts to restore the Fox River. However, on the local level, it created a misunderstanding of the designation. Many people misinterpreted the designation thinking that it was reaffirming that the Fox River was not worth protecting. Endanger, or to put at risk, is usually associated with something of value. The Bald Eagle is a good example. Our national symbol faced hunting, habitat destruction, and the pesticide DDT as major causes of a decline from historically 100,000 nests down to 417 in 1963. Several pieces of legislation led to the actions that protected and restored the population, and the removal of the Bald Eagle from the federal Endangered Species list came in 2007 (the same year that a pair resumed nesting in the Fox River Watershed). The eagles have recovered, and so has the Fox River, which is a story we still need to be sharing.

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Suzanne Shover captured this eaglet reflected in the Fox River.

Is the Fox Polluted?

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Photo by Tom Schrader

Friends of the Fox River was one of the collaborating organizations that petitioned American Rivers to include the Fox River on their 1999 list. It has been a work in progress to address the public misperception of the quality of the Fox River. Even after 50 years of restorative efforts, only 37% of watershed residents surveyed believe that the Fox is not polluted. Pollution is a general term but using fish abundance and diversity as the indicators does tell the health of the entire river. The Fox River is very healthy except for the areas immediately upstream of the dams.

The Benefits of Being Listed

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The upper Fox River impaired waters are in red.

In the late 90s there was already concern on the federal level for the Hypoxic (no dissolved oxygen) Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Excess nutrification was the culprit and it was being delivered from upstream sources. On a state level, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) had designated two short sections in the northern section of the Fox River and Indian Creek in Aurora as impaired waters (not meeting standards), due to nutrients, organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen (DO), pathogens, suspended solids, flow alteration, and habitat alteration. With the American Rivers list disclosure, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) turned to the IEPA for an explanation. Consequently, the 303(d) list of impaired waters went from three small sections in the 2000 report to the entire main stem in the 2002 report. After being listed as impaired, there was a mandate to develop a plan for remediation and the American Rivers listing indirectly initiated that plan.

Fox River Implementation Plan


The plan called for the development of a large (200+ collection sites) database by the Illinois State Water Survey. In addition, the formation of the Fox River Study Group (FRSG) occurred in 2001. The study group was formed as a collaborative approach to creating a healthier Fox River. The FRSG developed an effective water-monitoring program for the Fox River and is using that data to guide communities toward the best solutions to improve water quality. Analysis of collected data over 2006 to 2016 shows that levels of nutrient pollution in the Fox River declined. The Fox River Implementation Plan (FRIP) was released in 2015. Thank you, American Rivers!

WGN Feature

On April 20, 2023, a new film, Watershed Warriors was released, and the Fox River’s 1999 7th Most Endangered River status was addressed. Relative to the film’s release, Friends of the Fox River (FOTFR) directors, Jenni Kempf and Gary Swick appeared on a WGN Midday segment that led in with the American Rivers list released that day. The interview involved questioning how have things improved since 1999, which is a success story.

Watch Watershed Warriors

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The producers of the film, RiversareLife/BeAlive have a similar motive as American Rivers: to publicly share on an international scale the situation of rivers around the world and gain support for the work that is being and needs to be done. FOTFR is hopeful that the increased awareness from Watershed Warriors will have a significant impact, much like the attention that the Fox River received in 1999. Go to RiversareLife.com or to YouTube to view Watershed Warriors which was produced to tell our story and help us gather more Friends.  Please help us to continue to ride that wave by sharing our film with others. The more views, the more new Friends to help us, as together we keep on fixin’ the Fox.