The problem with water sources such as the Scajaquada Creek is that a lot of times, the biggest problems are the ones that we don’t see. And with this particular creek, that says a lot. Why? Because if you take the time to analyze the issues, they are pervasive – hiding both underground and behind closed doors
First, you have the DOT which is about to screw up things again, because they are not even taking the creek into account as they attempt to reconfigure the bounding expressway. Anyone in their right mind would look at the big picture, the community angle… what’s best for the city, the people, and the environment. Nope, that’s not what’s happening here, so we’ve all got to play the waiting game, to see just how bad the outcome will be. Then we can sit back and try to figure how to bandage all of the pieces back together.
I didn’t meet with Waterkeeper’s Deputy Executive Director Kerrie Gallo and Senior Program Manager Katherine Winkler to vent my frustrations, but when I heard that Waterkeeper (formerly Riverkeeper) was part of the charette that envisioned the pedestrian bridge that should traverse the S-curves, I just had to speak my mind. At the same time, I was aware that there was a total disconnect between the creek and the expressway, and a monumental opportunity to connect the two was about to pass us by. While that is unsettling to say the least, the creek is starting to attract some long-deserved attention thanks in part to a Governor Cuomo signing legislation investing $2.5 billion in clean water infrastructure and water quality protection in 2017.
So this is where it stands currently. The DOT could care less about the creek, which is shortsighted. Thankfully, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper understands the importance of the creek, as it relates to our community, the environment, history and it’s relationship to the Niagara River. Other than the DOT, the other significant issue that is at odds with the creek is its unsettling past. Upstream, the creek flows underground once it reaches Main Street. From there it’s covered by streets and communities. Along the way, the creek is subjected to the environmental wrath of a dated combined sewer overflow system that dumps raw sewage and parking lot runoff (gas, oil, etc.) during heavy rainstorms. That runoff from outlying communities enters the creek and finds its way all the way to the Niagara River. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the time to look at the water up close, but it’s pretty nasty.
According to Kerrie, the best thing to do would the to get the outlying municipalities to access those infrastructure and water quality protection funds without competing against one another. Currently. Waterkeeper is underway with an instrumental shoreline restoration effort where the creek flows through Forest Lawn Cemetery.
By demonstrating that we are better stewards of our waterways than we have been in the past, the idea is to get the outlying communities to understand that we are all in this together.
We all rely on clean water, for drinking and for recreation. By creating a vibrant new public space along the creek, we can demonstrate that the creek is a wonderful amenity instead of a scourge. I asked Kerrie about the issue with the underground river, and she even had an enlightened answer for that seemingly unresolvable issue. “We have talked about ‘daylighting’ part of it,” she explained. “Daylighting at key access points (such as Schiller Park) would reconnect the community to the creek. This would show people how important this water source is. Currently, they don’t even know that it’s there.”
Wow! Now we’re talking. For the first time, it sounds like someone is coming up with some problem solving ideas, instead of just saying, “What’s done is done.” Speaking of Scajaquada Creek issues, as I implied previously, there are many. The next one that comes to mind is the trash rack that collects debris as the waterway is diverted underground, below the Marcy Casino, before re-emerging at Mirror Lake at the Buffalo History Museum. Yup, that’s how messed up all of this is. The water doesn’t flow into Hoyt Lake (Gala Waters), it’s completely diverted. The lake is spring fed, as is the river. In the 1950s, there was a much larger lake there, but we screwed that up too. Now, there are talks about ways to restore the historic wetland complex. “It’s something that’s on the table,” said Katherine.
Next up? Sediment island! That’s the silt island that has been formed where the water re-emerges at Mirror Lake. There is currently a plan to remove the island, which would help to get the creek flowing faster, which would thus help with water quality. It would also be a big help for the stabilization of aquatic habitat, plants and fish. In the perfect world, the water would somehow flow from Forest Lawn, into Hoyt Lake, and then into Mirror Lake (as it once did), but the configuration has been so screwed up that a larger Master Plan would have to come to pass.
A Master Plan you say? Yes, that’s the problem with all of this. There is no Master Plan. We’ve got the DOT running around will-nilly with blinders on, and we have Waterkeeper and Forest Lawn Cemetery bandaging up the creek, and then there’s the Olmsted Parks Conservancy that wants to see the lake restored… but there’s a disconnect when it comes to public officials who continually remain oddly absent, until a pretty red ribbon is ready to be cut.
Kerrie and Katherine both agreed that we have only one shot to get this right. The same sentiment was shared by Olmsted Parks Conservancy executive director Stephanie Crockatt, who I met up with a couple of weeks ago (see here). According to Kerrie, the problem with the creek is that there is no coordinator. Hard to believe, right? That said, Waterkeeper is the de facto coordinator for the creek. They are trying to piece it all together, but that takes time and money. Waterkeeper recently diverted it’s attention to the creek, because the legacy contamination at the Buffalo River has been handled. “The train has been moving so fast out the station,” Kerrie said. “So fast, that there hasn’t been much time to act. The creek needs to be a part of the big picture – both sides of the creek. Unfortunately, the community is not being heard.”
Further down towards Buffalo State, along the creek, there is a set of finger dams. According to Kerrie, no one knows where they came from, who put them there, and even their purpose is questionable. That means that The City is the de facto owner. And that means that The City would have to commit to a study, to see what would happen if they were to be removed. The hope would be that upon removal, the water would start flowing faster, and members of the Scajaquada Canoe Club would no longer have to portage at this bizarre juncture. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before some public official cares enough about the creek to start asking some serious questions and demanding qualified answers. Until that time, it will be business as usual… don’t muddy up the waters!
The history of the creek is pretty incredible. There is military history, recreational boating history, manufacturing history… and hopefully history in the making. This was once a bountiful source of water. Over the years it has been chopped up, manipulated, spat upon, kicked to the dirt, and left to rot. It has taken a new generation of waterfront pioneers and environmental activists to shine a light on this poor creek. The creek could use some dredging. It could use some weirs (boulder and rock formations that allow for meandering). It could use some love.
Currently Waterkeeper is building out a recreational water park at 1160 Niagara Street, which accesses the creek. The conversations are starting to swirl, but unfortunately, the big game changer would have been buy-in from the DOT. Which would mean that The State (and The City) would actually have to recognize the creek as a future player for recreational Buffalo. At this point, that’s not the case. “We’ve seen what the Buffalo River has done for the community,” said Katherine. “There are people who are experiencing the waterfront for the first time. For some younger people, waterfront accessibility will be a part of growing up. It will be natural for them to be on the water, which was not the case for many Buffalonians. The Scajaquada Creek is completely doable. Who would have thought that the Buffalo River would rebound?”
She’s right. And someday, a generation of Buffalonians will say the same thing about Scajaquada Creek, but unlike the Buffalo River, the current guard is missing the boat on the creek matter. Thankfully, we are seeing flashes of brilliance with Waterkeeper and Forest Lawn Cemetery.
According to Kerrie, the folks at the cemetery could have made money selling the land for plots, but instead dedicated the property to nature and to the community. Soon there will be vegetation, wildlife, pedestrian bridges, and weirs. And we will have another beautiful spot to sit by the water on a sunny day. It would be great to know that someday that water will be a lot cleaner than it is now, but I have a feeling that Waterkeeper is working some wonders behind the scenes.