Fixing the Fox

Appears in the September 2023 issue.

By Kelli Ra Anderson

A local environmental group acts to protect a key aquatic resource

Fox River

Just a few decades ago, the Fox River was ranked the seventh-most-endangered river in the United States.

Urban sprawl, pollution, and state-agency inaction were taking quite a toll on the 200-mile-long waterway, which flows from southeastern Wisconsin to Ottawa, Illinois—with river towns like St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, Aurora, Oswego, and Yorkville along the way. According to the 1999 report by the American Rivers Association, the largest threats to the Fox were increased levels of pollutants from human waste and chemical fertilizers. (Yuck, yes, you read that right.)

Taking action, quickly, to save the river was vital. Friends of the Fox River (FOTFR) is one organization that has been stepping up to preserve, restore, and protect the river, building a network of caretakers—adults and students alike. Each year, thousands of residents are now involved in the nonprofit’s education, research, restoration, and advocacy programs, from water-quality monitoring and education to cleanups and habitat improvement projects.

“Youth experiences–education–is our strong point,” explains FOTFR president Gary Swick, a retired teacher. “From the beginning we weren’t just about advocacy but about empowering our youth to be advocates. And that requires watershed education.”

The Fox River watershed—the total land area that drains into the river—covers more than 2,500 square miles and serves more than 1 million residents every day. The Fox carries wastewater and stormwater from 100-plus communities and provides drinking water for 300,000 residents. Not to mention, it’s a habitat for wildlife and a boon for boaters, paddlers, and anglers.

Gary Swick with a student
Gary Swick with a student

Some of FOTFR’s initiatives include planting 7,000 water willows along the banks, cleaning up trash, teaching teens how to take water samples, and organizing restoration projects. For Jenni Kempf, her involvement as a student was a life-changing experience. She’s now FOTFR’s director of educational program operations, working alongside Swick. Both are featured in a 13-minute film released in April, Watershed Warriors, which tells the story of the river’s advocates and restoration journey. “Our rivers can’t speak for themselves about their overall health and conservation,” Swick says. “We’re trying to give the river a voice.” Since 1991 he has worked with tens of thousands of students like Kempf; an estimated 5,000 participants are involved in FOTFR educational programs and events each year.

Some indicators of the group’s success include more diversity of wildlife, such as the return of the much-loved bald eagles and otters, as well as a greater abundance of fish. But as oxygen-depleting algae blooms of last year evidenced (the result of phosphorus runoff from agriculture and urban sectors), there is still more work to be done.

One of FOTFR’s priorities is not only undoing the damage from dams but removing the dams themselves. Dams create obstacles for mussels, which are filter-feeders that clean the water: Downstream of a dam is good habitat for mussels, but above the dam the lake-like environment has a mucky bottom not suitable for mussels, and they perish. “People are drawn to flowing water,” explains Swick, noting that anglers fish downstream from dams, where fish habitat is healthier. “When the dams are gone, there will be even more habitat for more diversity of fish.”

In the meantime, however, there is plenty to do. For starters, the annual It’s Our Fox River Day (organized by FOTFR and its partners) is September 16 with events planned from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to the river’s confluence in Ottawa. “It is a celebration that can be done by an individual, a pair, a family, friends, and/or a group of colleagues,” Swick says. “It is about honoring the watershed and having fun.” Festivities include shoreline yoga, art, music, paddling parties, and trash cleanups. For more information, visit The site also links to the film Watershed Warriors.

September 16

9 p.m. to 5 p.m.


Photos: Friends of the Fox River (Swick); Jen Banowetz (river)