Fox River: What's in the Water?
Enjoying the river but not eating the fish.
Waukesha is proud of its river, showcasing it with people-pleasing developments like fountains, sculptures, parks, walkways and paths.
Fun water activities along the river include canoeing or paddle boating, water ski shows, fishing and watching the ducks.
But a recent walk along the river had me wondering about the quality of the river water. With duckweed and other aquatic plants spreading and the water looking cloudy in places, the appearance of the river was somewhat lacking.
Turns out, the Fox River, although picturesque, is a considered an "impaired waterway" by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and what I was seeing were symptoms of its impairment.
A water is polluted or impaired if it does not support full use by humans, wildlife, fish and other aquatic life and it is shown that one or more of the pollutant criteria are not met, according to the DNR website.
In the case of the Fox River in Waukesha, upstream and downstream from the dam, pollutants found in the water include phosphorus, PCBs and sediment/total suspended solids, according to a DNR chart of surface water data.
The impairments caused by these pollutants were degraded river habitat, contaminated fish, and low dissolved oxygen in the water, leading to poor water quality for humans and fish.
The main problem is this: Shallow, slow-moving, warmer water in the area upstream from the dam and along the banks provides a perfect environment for plant growth. Add some nutrients, in this case phosphorus and nitrogen, and the plants can grow quickly. There’s also sediment that builds up, trapping pollutants, which come from street run-off and other potential sources.
In spite of these challenges, there have been improvements in the water quality in recent years, according to Jim D’Antuono, DNR Fox River Basin team leader.
“The quality of the water has improved significantly,” he said.
Improvements have been made thanks in part to better treatment of wastewater by treatment plants upstream from Waukesha in Brookfield and Sussex. Also, changes in industry and manufacturing have led to a decrease in industrial discharges that impact the river.
The problems associated with the Fox River in Waukesha as an impaired waterway are mainly aesthetic and recreational, since the river water isn’t used for human consumption.
“Aesthetically, we could see undesirable plant growth,” D’Antuono said.
An up-close view of the river shows that the bright green plant floating on the surface is duckweed, a small-leafed, rather attractive plant that fish and ducks like to eat. The duckweed collects in the other plants growing in the river.
Recreationally, the shallow, plant-filled water isn’t good for swimming and can make boating harder
“It effects the way people can use the water,” D’Antuono said.
The DNR has also set additional guidelines for eating fish caught from the Fox River, recommending that carp, channel catfish or other bottom-feeding fish be eaten no more than once a month. Other state fish consumptions guidelines apply, too.
Fish may take in contaminants from the water they live in and the food they eat, in this case, PCBs, which have been linked to learning disabilities and increased risk of cancer. Some of these contaminants build up in the fish -- and in humans who eat the fish-- to levels that can pose a health risk.
In terms of public health, if bacteria levels or conditions in the water are a concern, people can experience skin irritation, or eye or ear infections, D’Antuono said. But they haven’t had a lot of reports of that, because there isn’t swimming in the river. Also, the Fox River is not tested for bacteria so there would be no warning if or when bacteria levels are high.
One particular area of concern is the small creek in Frame Park, a place where children often play.
That creek is also considered impaired by the state because of chronic aquatic toxicity, phosphorus contamination and sediment contaminated by polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
PAHs occur in oil, coal, and tar deposits, and are produced as byproducts of fuel burning. As a pollutant, they are of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic, according to Wikipedia.
The watershed area for the little, unnamed creek is east of the creek to over to Main Street and the Les Paul Parkway, a wide swath of drainage area through industrial and residential areas.
The DNR has had discussions with the city about the creek about addressing the issue, because of the popularity of the creek with children and the fact that it drains into the Fox River.
The main cause of the problem is run-off from the dense residential and industrial areas, about which it is difficult to bring significant improvement in the short-term, D’Antuono said.
There are few things people can do to help improve our river water in general, including being more careful about what we unintentionally add to the stormwater system. For example, fertilizers and pesticides end up in the river, adding to the excessive growth of the plants and chemical build-up. Motor oil in a stream or lake can create a large slick.
For me, I’m still going to enjoy the Fox River and the area, despite its impaired status, following these precautions:
- No more playing in the Frame Park creek.
- Washing after being in the water, for example, when my canoe tips.
- Maybe fishing with the kids but catching and releasing or being prudent about eating the fish, following state guidelines.