Decades of pollutions poisoned the Fox River and Green Bay but cleanup efforts offer new promise.
One of my favorite places as a child growing up in Green Bay was Bay Beach. Bay Beach is an amusement park with a giant slide, bumper cars and a slew of other carnival rides, including my favorite: the ferris wheel. I remember the flush of anxiety I got from mixed excitement and nerves when I was finally old enough to hop into the carriage and take the trip to the top with my mom. The ride always felt too fast and too short, a circular blur of wind, color and laughs.
My favorite part, the part that still sticks out in my mind, was when the carriages would make one last loop around the wheel, stopping in intervals to let people off at the bottom. While paused at the top of the ferris wheel, instead of looking down and waving to friends on the ground, I would look to my left and stare at the seemingly endless expanse of blue-green water. Hands down, this is the best view of Green Bay you can find.
To someone not familiar with the area, it may seem strange that my memories of Bay Beach include that picturesque image of the bay, but not a trip to an actual beach. This thought didn’t cross my mind until I was much older. There is a beach at Bay Beach, but it closed due to bacterial contamination in 1938.
This discovery didn’t surprise me. Rumors were that the river smelled, the fish were too mutated to eat and if you scooped up some of the water, you’d get a cup of green sludge. I never tested the validity of these rumors because, despite growing up within miles of the water, I wasn’t allowed close enough to the Fox or the bay to find out the truth. However, my parents’ generation would say the river has been unclean for as long as they can remember.
From my work at a paper mill during the summer, I know that the high number of mills—24 on 39 miles of shoreline, the highest concentration in the world—had something to do with this pollution. What I didn’t know about was the long history of phosphorous runoff that caused beach closures and fish advisories dating back to before my grandparents were born.
The government stepped in when they put Green Bay on the list for the Clean Water Act in 1972. The resulting cleanup project has spanned four decades and found some of its biggest support from Green Bay locals who are ready to return the water to a healthy state.
The Damage Done
Currently, the city of Green Bay is known for one thing: football. But before Curly Lambeau stuck a cleat in the ground and declared the area Cheesehead Nation, French fur traders, Jesuit missionaries and paper makers sailed up the Fox River highway in search of the Native Americans who called themselves “People of the Sea.” They found them on the banks of a big bay, upstream of Lake Winnebago.
After discovering the abundance of fish and wild rice the bay had to offer, many of these early travelers set up trading posts. The town that eventually formed was Wisconsin’s first settlement. It was aptly named after the bay, green in color despite a lack of pollution.
The river and the bay sustained these early settlers. It would take hundreds of years for the water to thicken enough that it was used only to import goods instead of provide food. By the mid-1900s, everyone living in Green Bay knew the water was dirty and few dared to use it for the recreation and natural resources it once provided.
The cleanup process in Green Bay began in the 1960s when a group of scientists from the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute observed that many species of fish had disappeared. High amounts of phosphorous in the water, mostly due to runoff from local farms, were a key culprit. It created toxic blue-green algae, killing and driving fish away. Although a key factor, runoff is not the only culprit.
Appleton Paper Company began dumping polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs, a byproduct of carbonless copy paper, into the river in 1954. In 1976, scientists discovered that PCBs were behind a majority of the chemical pollution and degradation in the river.
Runoff and PCBs were the reasons I grew up near a smelly river and a bay with a beach I couldn’t swim at. When Green Bay became one of the Clean Water Act’s areas of concern, the area failed to meet 13 of the 14 criteria for safe water.
Despite this rating, Bud and Vicky Harris see hope in the river’s future. It’s no surprise they feel passionate about the cleanup as they live so close to the river. It’s the first thing they see out their bedroom window every morning when they wake up.
Vicky and Bud were part of the Sea Grant team that determined the top ecological risks in the area in the 1980s and 1990s, a list that has stayed consistent for the past 30 years. It was no surprise to me that PCBs and phosphorous were the second and third biggest risk. What topped the list?
“The top two risks, which tied for first place, were not PCBs, interestingly enough, but invasive species and the permanent loss of habitat,” Vicky Harris says. “These factors result in permanent damage to the system. There’s no going back, there’s no fixing the problem.”
Just like the river wasn’t safe for me to swim in growing up, it also wasn’t safe for many of the aquatic animals that used to call the area home. The cleanup projects in Green Bay have largely focused on the removal of PCBs and phosphorous because, unlike the first place winners, they’re not permanent. According to the Harrises, these cleanups have been successful and fish have started to move back to the area.
“If you go back to the ‘60s, it was worse,” Bud Harris says. “There were hardly any fish in the Fox River.”
“In 1985, we went out and conducted fish surveys in the river,” his wife, Vicky, says. “We found 35 species of fish.”
“You can catch all kinds of fish now,” Bud Harris says with a laugh. “But you’re [still] not advised to eat them.”
Despite these improvements in the fish population, scientists from the Sea Grant Institute and others were instrumental in helping to define dead zones in the bay. When an excess amount of algae meets with hot, calm weather, the result is harmful blooms that can produce toxins, putting living things in danger. In Green Bay’s case, algae blooms didn’t leave any oxygen for fish and microbial invertebrates in the area.
“Fish either have to escape by swimming away or it can result in the death of aquatic life,” Vicky Harris says, explaining why these areas are called “dead” zones.
This zone currently covers roughly a third of the bay.
Returning The Bay Resource
The pollution limits recreation-like swimming, but people still use the river and the bay.
Hundreds of fishermen come to Green Bay every year to try and net the biggest walleye for huge prizes. Persistently high levels of PCBs mean fish from the river are only caught for sport, but you’re still hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Green Bay on a Friday night that isn’t frying walleye from the bay. According to my parents, I ate fish from the bay every weekend growing up.
One of the reasons I can eat fish from the bay is the community members who have worked to clean up the area. Megan O’Shea, the Department of Natural Resources coordinator for Green Bay’s Area of Concern, says that in her experience with communities, having clean water is usually at the top of their priority list.
“I think it’s [especially] important for building an ethic of stewardship,” she says. “It helps people connect, and then they want to protect that resource that they have.” The river and the bay weren’t seen as a resource for more than a hundred years. The Clean Water Act and the publicity surrounding PCB pollution acted as a wake up call.
“I think our community as a whole is becoming aware of it, and they’re willing to help out because it’s an asset for the area,” says Matt Kriese, assistant director for the Brown County Parks. “Something as simple as volunteer groups organizing cleanup efforts really changes the mindset.”
Volunteers organized groups to assist in small ways, such as picking up the trash clogging the shoreline or urging paper mills to remove the pipes that once dumped waste into the river. Slowly but surely, people started to see the water as a place they could go to do more than catch wall-mountable walleye.
The best days on Kriese’s job are the ones he spends leading kayak tours down the Fox River and into the bay. The trips are fun and a good workout, but their main goal is to educate the public.
“By getting people on the water, we’re letting [them] know about more than just the cleanups,” he says. “We’re letting them know about the other enhancements that are happening.”
One of these enhancements is the restoration of one of the top ecological risks in the area: the loss of wildlife habitat.
The Cat Islands are a group of islands off the shoreline of Green Bay that eroded due to strong storms and high water levels in the 1970s. Part of the current restoration project is rebuilding 272 acres of these islands so they can once again be a home for plants, fish, birds, turtles and the thousands of invertebrates that live in the river and bay.
There are also new regulations in place in the Midwest to prevent invasive species from entering waterways, so our native species can enjoy this new space without fear of invasion.
During the kayak trips, Kriese educates participants on the importance of the cleanup efforts and points out various environmental projects along the route. The removal of PCBs will eventually lead to an area that can be used by a variety of animals, including humans.
“We’re seeing more ducks, we’re seeing more fish, we’re seeing more people out there,” Kriese says.
Longing For The Old Way
Green Bay was formed by people in search of water. They needed the water to survive. It gave them their food and it allowed them to trade that food with others to build a prosperous settlement.
The current cleanup of the bay is helping citizens realize what early settlers did: that they have a resource for livelihood right at their fingertips.
“This is just a small piece of a much bigger puzzle in terms of trying to figure out the community’s future and how water plays into that,” O’Shea says.
The people of Green Bay want their water back.
One step that is at the top of the community’s and mayor’s list is opening the beach at Bay Beach to the public for the first time in more than 75 years. If my own children grow up in Green Bay, I like to think that when they ride the ferris wheel and it stops at the top, they’ll be able to look out over a bay that holds memories for them. It will still be green, but no longer from pollution.