POTY / Jill Jedlicka
Slowly but surely: the waterfront recovers
Executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka
Photo by kc kratt
Western New York native and executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, always knew she wanted to work with the environment and the community, but she didn't envision herself as director of the nonprofit organization best known for its fleet of yellow kayaks. For more than twenty-five years, Riverkeeper's employees and volunteers have been dedicated to protecting water quality, cleaning pollution from the greater Niagara waterways, restoring fish and wildlife habitats, enhancing public access through greenways, and so much more. Since 2003, Jedlicka has worked to help advance that mission and, while choosing her favorite project would be “like choosing my favorite child,” she has always enjoyed sharing the news of her organization’s many activities with anyone willing to listen.
Video produced by Adam Heftka, Amanda Snyder, and Kashya Williams
Music: "Land Legs" by Andy G. Cohen. Released under Creative Commons. Attribution International License https://andyg.co/hen/
Music: "The Thorn Revisit" by Axletree. Licensed under Creatie Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License
Created in partnershio with Hilbert College through the Department of Digital Media Communication
What do you wish local residents knew about Riverkeeper?
When the average Western New Yorker sees our name, they think we advocate for fish and birds, which we do, but we’re really broader problem-solvers. We take on some of the region’s biggest problems and take a comprehensive approach to issues like pollution, sewage, toxic sediment, cleaning up the Niagara River watershed, and the long-term health of the Great Lakes. So much of what we do is behind the scenes, and we’re very involved in Washington [DC] advocacy. Funding for these types of projects is so competitive that, unless we fight, unless we get out there and bang the drum, the money goes elsewhere.
How has Riverkeeper changed since you started in 2003?
We started out as mostly volunteers and, today, we have twenty-seven full-time staff members. We’re team-oriented chameleons—we’re always changing color and putting on different hats for our different areas of expertise that are required for an entire water system, be that hydrology, law, toxicity, business administration, community organizing, or economic benefits; those are all under our purview. Over the past few years, people have reawoken to the fact that we are a Great Lakes City, that we must make the most of our water and care about our water.
How has the WNY region changed over that same time span?
We’ve come a long way and made great progress, but we still have challenges. We’re dealing with 100 years of industrial sites and associated liabilities. We’re still cleaning up the messes of the past, and there’s ongoing healthy debate about what that means. Hopefully, we can maintain that forward momentum. There’s been a changing and a shifting paradigm of communication that it’s OK to embrace our waterway; that’s our new normal. It’s great to read about the work we’ve been doing all along with the blue economy and green infrastructure. Even a few years ago, we were the only ones having these conversations, the only ones kayaking on the river. It’s a great feeling to see it all moving forward.
Tell us about the Thiess International Riverprize, which Riverkeeper won in September.
The Thiess is the Nobel Prize of riverbase management. We started the process two years ago, when we were awarded the inaugural North American Riverprize, competing against forty other rivers over six months and three stages of review. We then became a stage two finalist for the Thiess, which required more review by an independent panel in an international process. It was a very lengthy process and a tremendous honor to recognize not only our body of work and vision, but the culture shift and shifting paradigms surrounding how we interact with our Great Lakes. I’ve said all along that this is a record of our recovery as a region, and we share it with not only our staff and board, but also our dedicated partners and community.
What’s your greatest hope for Riverkeeper’s future? For Buffalo’s?
We want to put ourselves out of business. I hope we can continue on our forward trajectory to continue to restore, protect, and raise a new generation of people who appreciate fresh water.
What's one thing you wish you'd known starting out?
It’s so important to understand the natural world but also be able to communicate and understand the human element. You’ve got to look at every problem from a variety of angles to really come up with a solution.
Lizz Schumer teaches in the Canisius College journalism department and writes frequently for a number of publications.