Summer is a great time to be by the water, and is also a popular time for family reunions. On a beautiful late-summer day, The Environmentalists Formerly Known as Riverkeeper gathered their large, extended family at Canalside with the Inner Harbor as a backdrop.
As often happens at family gatherings, they had some big, important news to share: there would be no more Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper. From now on, the organization would be known as Buffalo-Niagara WATERKEEPER.
According to Buffalo Business First, the name change reflects an expanded focus to all of the region’s waterways, beyond the Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek and Niagara River to other waterways and other parts of the lakefront in the region.
In announcing this change, Executive Director and Waterkeeper Jill Jedlicka said,
By transitioning ourselves to Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper, we are both increasing our own commitment to water, and inspiring our community, individuals, and institutions to new efforts to restoring and maintaining these critical resources.
She cited the Scajaquada watershed as a primary example of where this cross-jurisdictional, cross-border approach will be necessary.
“Water connects all of us, and it will take all of us to protect our water,” she also said. “Because water represents all of our work, and water connects our region.”
Many “friends of the family” were also present and spoke at the announcement, which you can watch in its entirely here.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, who before his election to that job was a board member of Waterkeeper’s predecessor, said (beginning at about 15 minutes in the video) that he was glad “to see this organization admit in name what had happened in fact already: you have become stewards of the waters of the Great Lakes all the way from Lake Erie through the Niagara River and its tributaries, including the Buffalo River, all the way down to Lake Ontario.”
Touching on the recent high-profile water issue in his own city, Dyster pointed out that out he has worked with four different governors of New York, including Pataki, on Great Lakes issues. He has warned them, he said, that because Niagara Falls is at the center of the between-the-lakes ecology, and is a famous place that stirs powerful emotions among people all over the world, “be careful when you’re talking at Niagara Falls, because even if you’re whispering, you’re whispering into a bullhorn.”
And that Niagara Falls bullhorn recently grabbed everyone’s attention again, with the infamous inky black discharge going viral. “If you look at the recommendations in the State of Our Waters report, they are coming straight from the headlines of recent days, highlighting the need for additional investement in wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, not just in Niagara Falls, but throughout the region,” Dyster said.
The State of Our Waters report Dyster referenced was another big part of the announcement. A kind of annual family newsletter, it will allow the region to check in to see what condition the condition of our water is in. More precisely, Jedlicka described it as a “dashboard” of key water-quality metrics and “a road map to improve the health of the region’s water.” The inaugural report shows progress in some areas, and a long road ahead on others. As a regional family, on water issues we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. The State of Our Waters report will regularly remind us what and how far. You can find it here (PDF).
The red lights on the dashboard, Jedlicka said, are drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater.
Congressman Higgins – a founding board member of Waterkeeper’s predecessor – mentioned (beginning at about 8 minutes in the video) that Waterkeeper has gotten an international reputation for effectiveness. He also pointed out, ever the champion for waterfront revitalization, “You can’t build a new waterfront on a polluted lake.”And Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz recounted (beginning at about 11 and a half minutes in the video) that when he was growing up, people didn’t want to come down to the water, because of industrialization and pollution. In one generation, he said, we’ve gone from that to our waterfront being one of our biggest drawing points.
The other big announcement of family news was that an annual reunion, of sorts, will now be held the third weekend in May, beginning in 2018. Jedlicka said of what will be called, appropriately, Waterkeeper Weekend,
This…event will provide an annual call to action that reconnects the community to ongoing issues at the start of every water season. It will provide enhanced visibility to the importance of bringing families and community assets to our waters. Coordinated efforts will occur throughout the region that include community-wide waterway cleanups, shoreline restoration efforts, citizen science activities, organized water tours, numerous family activities on various waterfronts, and more water-themed to be announced in the future. All the activities will be organized around the vision of clean and accessible water and will involve the engagement of dozens of businesses, institutions, organizations, and culturals.
Partnering on Waterkeeper Weekend will be D’Youville College, and the college president, Lorrie Clemo, who succeeded Sister Denise Roche recently, was there to talk about it (beginning at about 27 minutes in the video). But the affiliation she described was much bigger – in a sense, announcing the engagement of two of Buffalo’s great families, Waterkeeper and D’Youville. The college will be incorporating water quality issues across the curriculum, and working with Waterkeeper will become a major part of the college’s core service mission.
D’Youville will also be using a Federal grant, in partnership with Waterkeeper staff, to train middle- and high-school teachers in GIS technologies, with a focus on mapping natural resources. And the college’s School of Pharmacy will be working on efforts to protect our water from improperly disposed drugs, which the Buffalo News has reported are showing up in alarming rates in our local water and fish, and which water treatment plants are ill-equipped to filter out. One approach will be growing, in partnership with Waterkeeper, an existing program to collect and incinerate unneeded pharmaceuticals.
With all these announcements came the inescapable realization that Waterkeeper is as much a family as an organization. The initiatives and partnerships announced were all, in one way or another, about growing their extended network, and growing their capacity to make a difference. All but spoken was the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Similarly, it will take a family – the family of Western New York – to restore our water bodies and shorelines and protect the quality of our water. And it was never more clear to me than at their recent announcement just how much Waterkeeper is, and has always been, about creating that family.
Like all families, Waterkeeper had small beginnings. A group small enough to fit in one canoe came together three decades ago, united by concern for the health of the Buffalo River, and eventually became the Friends of the Buffalo River. Now-Mayor Dyster joined the board as the organization expanded its mission to become the Friends of the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers. Later, they joined the international Riverkeeper network, and grew to become one of the network’s most capable “keepers.”
That capacity has shown most notably in Waterkeeper’s leadership of the team overseeing the cleanup of the Buffalo River. A model public-private partnership, it has been fueled with funds from Honeywell, which purchased what remained of Buffalo Color, one of the largest legacy polluters of the river, and from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and from New York’s Environmental Protection Fund. But because no agency, federal, state, or local, would take the lead, it took Waterkeeper to build the trust and build the capacity to build, essentially, a family whose mission was to clean up the river.
The work of their family benefits your family, as you enjoy water access to which previous generations were denied.
Over the years they have grown their family, in large part, by building bridges and not burning them. While many other environmental organizations function primarily as watchdogs, and even file lawsuits, Waterkeeper – while it has played that role – is distinguished by its solutions focus. A notable example has been pushing and pulling the City of Buffalo to adopt a stormwater control plan embracing green solutions in addition to gray. As Jedlicka told the Buffalo News,
It’s not just about calling attention, placing blame or pointing fingers. It’s our role also being at the table with solutions.
Like most families, Waterkeeper even has a favorite uncle. Jill Spisiak Jedlicka’s great uncle, Stanley Spisiak, was a jeweler and conservationists before most even knew what conservation meant. An early, often lonely voice for protecting our waterways, many thought he was crazy, or even a threat to an industrial mindset that viewed externalities like pollution as simply a cost of doing business that they didn’t have to bear. As one of the organization’s periodic reports puts it,
Stanley’s passion for the river that defined his neighborhood carried him to speaking at public meetings, confronting government officials, and enduring all sorts of challenges such as a beating by two thugs one night after a public speech.
But as it turned out, Spisiak was crazy like a fox. In Washington to receive a conservation award, he found himself seated next to Lady Bird Johnson, and used the opportunity to invite her and her husband, the president, to Buffalo to see what the Army Corps was doing to our waterways a half-century ago. On that visit, Spisiak arranged for a fresh bucket of sludge from the bottom of the harbor to be placed under the president’s nose. Johnson cursed, and within weeks issued an executive order forbidding the dumping of dredging spoils in Lake Erie. Many environmental measures were to follow.
The story of Stanley Spisiak is one of my all-time favorite Buffalo stories. More importantly, it provides a real kind of family bond joining the important work being done now to restore our waterways to the work that began several generations ago.
And not to be overlooked, Waterkeeper has favorite aunts, too. With the organization’s three-decade history, many of the families of Waterkeeper employees, board members, and supporters have grown up together. Like the aunt who always pinched your cheek at family gatherings and proclaimed “my how you’ve grown!”, one speaker pointed out that the children of some staff members have literally “grown up before our eyes.” I also overheard one co-founder needling a staff person about when he plans to marry his fiancee. Just like every family gathering ever.
But just how does building family translate into tangible environmental work? According to the Buffalo News, “With one-quarter of its staff dedicated to citizen engagement, Waterkeeper officials said its organizational strategy is to generate that [environmental] involvement.” Jill Jedlicka told the News, “We’re upping our game, and we’re hoping the community will up its game, too. When we say ‘community,’ it’s not just individuals. It’s the business community. It’s institutions. It’s agencies. And private businesses.”
In other words, when it comes to restoring our waterways, no matter who you are, there’s a role for you.
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