Did you know that Riverkeeper is now Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper? Deputy Executive Director Kerrie Gallo said that the name change took place a little over a week ago. She explained that the name “Riverkeeper” denoted that the work was solely involving rivers, where that is certainly not the case when it comes to the organization’s broad aquatic scope. I joined Kerrie and Katherine Winkler (Senior Program Manager) at Waterkeeper headquarters at 721 Main Street to talk about a couple of water-related access points in Buffalo – Buffalo River and Scajaquada Creek. This is a two-part series, that starts off with the current status of the Buffalo River.
I wanted to know what the health of the river is today. With all of the dredging, and shoreline restoration efforts, was it OK to eat fish caught in the Buffalo River? And was it OK to swim in the river? I figured that since so many people were fishing the river, it would be good to know what the status of the water is. I’ve also seen people swimming in the river – to me, I’d want to know a lot more about what’s still in the water before diving in. After all, the Buffalo River was once considered “dead”.
See Western Region fish advisories – Other than catfish and carp, NYS Department of Health says that it is acceptable to eat up to four fish meals a month, when caught out of the Buffalo River.
Kerrie and Katherine told me that while the river is significantly cleaner due to all of the recent restorative efforts, there are still additional environmental concerns emanating from upstream, where runoff from combined sewer overflows (CSO) are still an issue. During heavy rainfall, the sewer systems are not able to accommodate the additional amount of water. When the waters get to be too great, there is an overflow control device that diverts the excess water directly into our waterways, along with raw sewage. The outdated sewer systems can’t accommodate the rainwater runoff from the parking lots, roadways, buildings, etc., which is why it is so important to implement pervious/permeable road/parking lots, while adding rain gardens, rain barrels, etc.
While most of the harmful contaminants in the river have been dredged, there is still some leaching that is occurring from the shore, especially during heavy rains. Fortunately, the habitat restoration efforts help to filter the stormwater runoff, while the water uptake from the plants also helps to cleanse the water and provide habitat for indigenous critters. The Army Corps of Engineers continues to test the waters, and also occasionally dredges the river to keep the channel clear.
“The successful work that we’re doing in places like the Buffalo River can be used to show outlying communities just how important it is to contribute to the effort,” Kerrie told me. “These outlying communities are interested in helping, but they are limited by their capacity to do so. We’re hoping that by demonstrating the effectiveness of our restoration efforts, those upstream communities will see how important it is for everyone to have clean water, whether that’s for recreation or for drinking. Interestingly, the bulk of the problem is coming from the private sector, with parking lots and roofs. We need to start conducting more education and outreach in a non-threatening way. We need to ‘keep the rain out of the drains’. Instead of diverting rooftop and parking lot rain runoff into sewer systems, we need to divert the water to lawns and gardens. It might cost some money, which is what people don’t want to hear. But in the end, it’s about water quality for the greater good of the region. These issues are mostly ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for most people. That’s why we want to use our work at the Buffalo River to show them how important this issue really is. It’s all about the conversation. ”
Katherine readily agreed with Kerrie by saying, “It’s great to see all of these people enjoying the Buffalo River for the first time in their lives. I describe the condition of the river as being ‘out of the intensive care unit, and into the general care unit’. We have seen significant progress, and now there is a need for different work. It’s a different river now. We need to identify what the next generation of stewards looks like – we’re shifting from the nuts and bolts that we have been dealing with, to the issue of sustaining the river moving forward.”
The good news is that the legacy contamination left by factories has been cleaned up to an acceptable level, but I’m still going to stick to the lake when swimming. An even more pervasive issue for all of our waters continues to be…
- Microbeads – tiny plastic balls found in products such as face creams – fish eat them thinking that they are tiny eggs
- Pharmaceuticals – the massive amounts of prescribed drugs that are taken by Americans are not filtered, and end up in lakes, rivers, fish, and drinking waters
- Plastics in general that find their way to lakes, rivers, and oceans
We will be tackling some more of those issues in weeks to come.
To learn more about the Buffalo River Restoration Project, click here.