Lake Winnebago and the Fox River are incredibly important not only as part of our ecosystem but for the surrounding communities and the local economy as well? The lake is estimated to bring over $300 million to the region from recreational fishing activity, and it serves as the drinking water source for over 250,000 people. Menominee Park in Oshkosh, Terrell’s Island west of Oshkosh, and Jefferson Park in Menasha are just a few examples of beautiful family-oriented areas nestled along the Fox River and Lakes Winnebago and Butte des Morts. These are great family areas for picnics, scenic walks, and observing wildlife, especially birds. These water bodies do have problems, though: historical pollutants, mercury contamination, runoff high in sediment and phosphorus, and harmful algal blooms are the most concerning issues.
PCBs, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, are a group of manufactured chemicals used in papermaking that are carcinogenic. They were banned from industrial use in 1979. These compounds are not very water soluble, so the contamination is found in sediment and the fatty tissues of animals. Because of the high levels of these chemicals in the Fox River between the Neenah Dam and Green Bay, special fish consumption advisories are in effect. The Fox River Cleanup project has been removing contaminated sediments since 2009 in an effort to fix this problem. Though Lake Winnebago and the upper lakes have some PCB contamination, it is not at a high enough level to issue a fish consumption advisory.
The primary source of mercury contamination in fish is coal burning for electricity production and other industrial processes. Small amounts of mercury in the coal enter the atmosphere then contaminate the lakes and fish from atmospheric deposition. This contamination is not unique to the Winnebago and Fox River as the deposition occurs all across the world, but the contamination is the cause of fish consumption advisories for Lake Winnebago, the upriver lakes, and the upper Fox and Wolf rivers.
Sediment and phosphorus enter the system via runoff during rainfall events and snowmelt. These contaminants aren’t directly harmful to humans (phosphorus is not harmful in drinking water and the sediment is filtered out), but they can cause harmful algal blooms and the poor appearance of the water (brown from sediment, green from algal blooms). These contaminants come from agriculture as well as homeowners and municipalities. Stormwater control and cleanup is an important solution to these problems. Did you know whatever you do on the land can impact the lake? If you litter here on campus means that there is a high chance the litter will end up in the Fox River. Excess fertilizer and weed killer on lawns can wash into the river. When it rains excess water picks up contaminants including trash and goes into storm sewers which exit directly into the river or lake. Native vegetative buffer zones like the bioretention basins next to most campus parking lots can help reduce the amount of pollutants and trash going into our waterways. They are not just weeds! They serve an incredible purpose while adding supporting wildlife along the shoreline and the campus community.
The Fox Wolf Watershed Alliance is one local non-profit organization dedicated to improving the waterways of the Fox Valley and their surrounding buffer zones. Recent efforts by this group have involved helping farmers reduce the amount of sediment and phosphorus leaving their farms in runoff.
You can visit the Fox Wolf Watershed Alliance website for volunteer opportunities, information on WI waterways, invasive species, and career opportunities at http://fwwa.org/
The Wisconsin DNR is a great source for regulations on waterways and invasive species: https://dnr.wi.gov/