The Rock River Basin covers nearly 3,800 square miles of South Central Wisconsin (click on map to the left). Shaped by the last glacial episode, this rolling landscape was once covered by thick woodlands interspersed with oak-savanna, prairies, wetlands, and numerous streams and lakes.
Today, the Rock River and its numerous tributaries thread their way through this landscape that spreads over 10 counties inhabited by more than 750,000 residents. Urban centers include Madison, Janesville and Beloit as well as smaller cities such as Waupun, Watertown, Oconomowoc, Jefferson and Beaver Dam. Although the basin is experiencing rapid growth, it is still largely rural in character with agriculture using 62.5% of the land area. The basin enjoys a healthy economy with a good balance of agricultural, industrial and service businesses.
Recreation and wildlife abound on over 150 lakes and impoundments, the Rock River which spans nearly 300 miles, and on 2325 miles of streams. The Horicon Marsh is an internationally recognized wetland and bird sanctuary.
Most of the basin’s surface waters are exposed to runoff pollution from both agricultural and urban land uses and many are exposed to waste water discharge pollution as well. Only a few surface water bodies within the basin are rated as excellent quality. Stream channelization, building of drainage ditches and draining of wetlands have contributed to flooding problems.
All of the drinking water in the basin is supplied by private and municipal wells. The quality is generally excellent, but some areas are contaminated with agricultural and industrial chemicals. Protecting our groundwater from future contamination is a must.
The basin has a long and rich history of Native American culture. Every major prehistoric Indigenous Tradition known to Wisconsin has been represented in the archeological record at Horicon Marsh and other areas. The archaeological records and oral traditions of current tribes indicate this depth of time. Modern landscape features, such as the effigy mounds built by the Woodland People from 500 B.C.E – 1100C.E, are a visualization of the deep history in which this land has been inhabited. The Ho-Chunk, Meskwaki (Sac & Fox), and Potawatomi inhabited the Rock River corridor and the surrounding countryside through the mid-1800’s when they were dispossessed of their land. These cultures still persist and reside on this land.
When we think about how to improve our economy or environment, or preserve our cultural or historic resources, we need to think beyond political divisions such as village, town or county. In Wisconsin, efforts to protect and preserve local resources have often been successful when focused on the watershed or river basin level.
The river basin idea helps us to understand how activities — from farming to modern industry to urban development — are directly related to our natural resources. The water quality in a community is a direct reflection of the activities that take place on the land. Similarly, the quality of our waters has a direct impact on our other resources such as wildlife, recreation and business and urban development. Economy, ecology, community — all are linked in the natural concept of a river basin.
The Rock River and its tributaries provide the surface water conduits that link together the communities, businesses and individuals that reside within the basin .
“Rivers have a way of connecting people. Everyday we send a message downstream.” ~Steve Hanson
The Rock River Coalition, in turn, provides a conduit that links the citizens of the basin and enables them to cooperatively address the issues and concerns that affect our quality of life.
For more information about water quality in the basin go to: