OSHKOSH, Wis.— A group in northeast Wisconsin is raising awareness for improving and protecting the Fox-Wolf River Basin.

Leaders of the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance say the group is trying to improve and protect the quality of the waterways leading into Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan.

Jessica Schultz is the executive director. She grew up in the Appleton area near the river.

“We skipped rocks, we crossed the canal, but we didn’t really swim in the canal. We were always told that that water is polluted. The water was a part of our lives, but not a big part,” she says.

That’s what fuels her mission to make the waters better for future generations.

The group’s website says it “provides unbiased information to support the development of responsible, well-informed policies and practices.” 

They aim to solve water quality issues.

“Being connected to the river systems, the lakes, and ultimately Lake Michigan… that’s a big responsibility for us to bear,” Schultz says.

Schultz says the recent PCB cleanup efforts aren’t enough to improve overall water quality. She says that’s because what her group has learned is PCBs are not the largest cause of algae and other problems with the water. She says nutrients and sediment runoff are the main culprits.

“We’re all contributors to the water quality problem that we’re having in our lakes and rivers right now,” Schultz says.

Katie Woodrow is the organization’s Lower Fox River Watershed coordinator. She says a major way to reduce pollution is to watch what goes down storm drains.

“There’s no filter between what is collected here and what ends upright in the water,” she says pointing to a storm drain in Appleton.

The pollution heads down storm drains and into larger bodies of water like Lake Winnebago, says Kelly Reyer, the group’s outreach coordinator. She’s helped lead annual major clean-up efforts. This year’s effort was at the start of May when teams throughout the region collected more than 3.6 tons of waste from the waterways.

“Some of the strange things found were like baby dolls, a washing machine, a queen size mattress, lots of shoes,” Beyer says. “Maybe that’s not that weird, but we do find a lot of them.”

Despite the work the group does, Woodrow says the only way they can make a major difference is with the community’s involvement. Woodrow says the group is asking people who live near the Fox River from Green Bay to the Fox Valley to answer a survey telling the group how families use the waters and where they find the value in it. From there, the group will determine their plans and policy proposals to work for that part of the river.

“I think we all have ownership of this land and the more that we can do the right thing and teach our kids to do the right thing, the better off we all are in the long-term,” Woodrow says.

Schultz says she’s never letting go of her dreams for the water, and recent progress has made her optimistic her dreams can become reality.

“For so long we built our communities with our backs to the water and that’s changing now. We see river walks, we see people out canoeing and kayaking,” Schultz says. “That didn’t happen when I was coming up, at least along the river frontage that I was a part of.”