Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
Accomplishing the impossible
Sometime in the early 1980s, I hiked along the Buffalo riverfront bike path and reached what is now called Unity Island. Here was the Niagara River, known worldwide for its Falls only a few miles downstream, in very poor health. And even worse was the nearby Buffalo River, that six-mile channel that twists and turns through South Buffalo connecting Cazenovia and Buffalo Creeks on the east edge of town. So deeply polluted was that waterway that, like Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, it was best known as a fire hazard. Add to that Scajacquada Creek, a poster child for the city’s filth where it finally appears above ground in Forest Lawn Cemetery after gathering debris from its industrial and residential pass under the city.
Bad news indeed, but even then, good things were beginning to happen. Unwilling to give up on these waterways, local citizens formed task groups that evolved over the years into today’s Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. This group has been addressing what seemed impossible thirty years ago, and making remarkable progress. It is far from done, but the fleets of kayaks now paddling the Buffalo River each summer are a clear indication of success.
Waterkeeper has written carefully designed grant proposals that have been funded in the tens of millions of dollars by conservation organizations and federal, state, county, and city governments. It has worked in cooperation with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers as well as the state Department of Environmental Conservation to make progress addressing identified goals. It has organized hosts of volunteers and educated the community about the value of what is being done.
Water quality testing
Knowing the level and extent of our problems is an important base from which to initiate programs and measure progress. To address this each year since 2011, a Riverwatch Report has been prepared for the entire drainage basin surrounding Buffalo as well as the Niagara River itself. This water quality data has been collected monthly by citizen scientists, and in particular by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper Young Environmental Leaders Program students. Among the measures are dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH (base vs. acid), turbidity, and temperature, all of which provide information regarding ongoing and emerging sources of pollution. One of the clear outcomes of this testing is the realization that our streams are not just polluted by industry; agricultural and even residential runoff sources are just as significant.
As one response to this, Waterkeeper sponsors a program that encourages homeowners to use rain barrels to capture rooftop runoff and decrease the amount of polluting debris eventually entering our waterways.
West Seneca Oxbow Wetland Restoration
Based on forty years of planning, Waterkeeper successfully petitioned New York State to regulate the wetland portion of this fourteen-acre site along Buffalo Creek and helped transfer its private ownership to the Town of West Seneca, with a conservation easement protecting it in perpetuity as a nature preserve. These activities were in cooperation with the West Seneca Environmental Commission, the University at Buffalo’s ERIE (Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary Exchange) graduate program, Ecology and Environment, Inc., and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. To date, over 12,000 square feet of Japanese knotweed and common reed have been removed and replaced with trees, shrubs, wetland grasses, and wildflowers selected for high wildlife value and historical presence at this site. Waterkeeper also developed a Watershed Owner’s Manual to better prepare town officials for stream corridor stewardship.
Stella Niagara Living Shorelines
The Stella Niagara Shoreline Enhancement Project
The Stella Niagara Preserve is a twenty-nine-acre parcel located along the lower Niagara River in the Town of Lewiston. Acquired by the Western New York Land Conservancy in 2015, the property is the largest publicly accessible, undeveloped tract of land along the entire Niagara River. The Stella Niagara Shoreline Enhancement Project includes expansion of the paddle-craft landing area and shoreline buffer zone, the creation of valuable habitat for numerous fish and wildlife species, protection of the shoreline from erosive forces of the Niagara River, and improvement of water quality through runoff absorption and filtration. The shoreline improvements supported by Waterkeeper through this project complement Land Conservancy’s efforts and are supported by the OATH Community Benefit Fund for Niagara County and LDC Construction.
Scajaquada Creek restoration and revitalization
It is hard for anyone walking along the Jesse Kriegel Bike Path to believe that Scajaquada Creek was the original source of drinking water for the City of Buffalo. By the early twentieth century, the pure water provided by its Lancaster springs had become impaired and unpalatable, affected by urban and suburban land use and sewage overflows. In response to this, much of the creek was simply hidden: since 1922, over three miles of it has been buried underground only to emerge in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Waterkeeper, together with the Forest Lawn Heritage Foundation, Buffalo Sewer Authority, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, is currently finalizing a project that includes historic restoration, community revitalization, habitat restoration, and community access within Forest Lawn Cemetery. This project will directly benefit downstream communities by improving habitat and water quality while also expanding recreational access to Scajaquada Creek, and providing expansive educational opportunities.
On May 10–12, the twenty-eight staff members and more than 2,000 volunteers under the leadership of director Jill Jedlicka are holding the organization’s annual Waterkeeper Weekend, a celebration of the opening of the water season on the Niagara Frontier. On Friday evening, May 10, 350 of the organization’s supporters will meet at The Barrel Factory and then on Saturday, May 11, over 2000 volunteers will mobilize to clean nearly sixty sites of lake and stream shorelines. Last year, for example, over twenty tons of trash were removed during this one-day event. After the clean-up, participants meet for a celebratory party.
Waterkeeper Weekend also marks the start of a corporate engagement campaign that will give local businesses an opportunity to partner and support the further work of this fine organization.
To really see Waterkeeper in action, find a way to paddle the length of the Buffalo River and appreciate how the unachievable has been achieved by the wonderful team at Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.