SIRT discusses sustainable preservation of Fox River

Sophia Voight, News Reporter

The Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations at UW Oshkosh held a “Fox River in Your Life” presentation and hands-on learning experience on Nov. 6 to hear from regional experts and discuss the Fox River watershed from perspectives of water quality, ecology and culture.

Held in the Environmental Research and Innovation Center, UWO professors Marcel Dijkstra, Robert Pillsbury and Paul Van Auken came together to present their respective research in engineering, biology and sociology related to the Fox River watershed.

Hosted by Stephanie Spehar, associate director for SIRT, the event began with a short walk to the riverfront behind ERIC for observation and water sample collection, followed by presentations from UWO professors and observation of Fox River water quality and algal samples.

“One thing I think about a lot is how we have this really kind of pretty amazing system right in our backyards.

Lake Winnebago, the Fox River, we don’t necessarily think about them a lot,” Spehar said. “So I thought it would be really cool to have an event that focused on the Fox River, on this watershed, from a few different perspectives.”

Dijkstra, assistant professor of environmental engineering technology, started off the presentations with his discussion on the source and treatment of the poor water quality of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago.

“We don’t want to drink water from the Fox River because there’s a bad rap,” Dijkstra said.

Dijkstra presented information on the diminishing quality of the water in the area due to algal blooms and the need to control rising phosphorus levels.

“We’re not going to fix it with a band-aid, we [have] to do something big,” Dijkstra said.

From there, Associate Professor of Biology and Microbiology Pillsbury gave his presentation on the Fox River through his ecological perspective on the history, harvesting and importance of having clean waterways for wild rice to grow in Wisconsin rivers.

“I was talking to my students about wild rice and I realized that none of them were aware of wild rice or even the process; how you get the plant, to selling it commercially,” Pillsbury said. “I thought if I can do anything, I’m going to try to gain a little bit of appreciation for this as a local resource.”

The last presentation came from Van Auken, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies, where he talked about Hmong people’s cultural relation to the Fox River.

“People don’t understand why Hmong people are here. People from the Fox Valley, from Wisconsin, don’t know their story,” Van Auken said. “And there’s not a lot of communication back and forth.”

Van Auken said that after Hmong refugees were relocated into Oshkosh and the Fox Valley, they tended to want to do things they had done throughout their histories, such as making connections to the natural world through farming and fishing, and that the Fox River has afforded them those opportunities.

Spehar concluded by saying that all three presentations resonated with a sense of attachment, understanding and desire to improve the Fox River.

“There’s all these sort of different facets to the river,” Spehar said. “I hear stuff about the lake and the system and how it functions or these particular ecological things like the wild rice, but then also about the human use of it, it really does deepen and enhance my sense of it.”

Van Auken said that if you don’t have a connection and understanding of a place, protecting it and valuing it becomes much more difficult.

“You [have to] start with understanding a place around you, and if you don’t, you’re not going to see how things are connected,” Van Auken said. “We are all in the same watershed; we can’t just focus on cleaning up the Fox River in Oshkosh because it’s only two miles of it that goes through the city. We have to think about how it’s connected to all these other areas if we really want to do something.”