Continuing the progress of Great Lakes restoration while solving the watershed's emerging challenges were the top topics of discussion at Tuesday's public meeting held by the International Joint Commission in Buffalo.
Some of the top goals?
- An international designation of importance for the Niagara River.
- The elimination of sewage overflows.
- More wetlands and habitat for keystone species.
- Waters free from legacy pollutants and emerging ones.
Tuesday's session took place at the WNED-TV studio, on Lower Terrace.
The afternoon agenda included a panel discussion. A second session – another public meeting – was to occur Tuesday night.
The International Joint Commission's meeting in Buffalo comes as the fifth of six such gatherings across the Great Lakes region. A final forum will be held on Wednesday in St. Catharines.
Earlier meetings in the United States were held in Detroit and Toledo this month. In the latter city, more than 150 people jammed an auditorium last week, in a session that reportedly became contentious at times.
Some were upset over insufficient regulations to mitigate toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie and President Trump's decision to defund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, according to a report by the Toledo Blade.
Here are some reports that came out of Tuesday's daytime session:
Mark Shriver, president of the Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable:
Mark Shriver, the president of the Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable, said the lake made Buffalo at the beginning, and it will guide its growth into this next century.
The roundtable -- which started with 30 members and is now at 76 -- helps businesses develop sustainability plans. Those plans help by reducing waste and pollution, complying with regulations and in other ways.
"Half of our members now have a sustainability plan," Shriver said.
Nearly all members have initiated recycling programs, he said.
One of the members featured last spring in The Buffalo News is Dave Majewski.
"We're just getting started," Shriver said.
Oluwole A. McFoy, general manager at the Buffalo Sewer Authority:
Oluwole A. McFoy, general manager at the Buffalo Sewer Authority since 2015, talked about "Green and Smart!" – what the BSA has been doing to restore Buffalo's waterways.
In 2014, the city inked its long-term control plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in satisfaction of a consent order against the city to reduce its sewage overflows into area creeks and streams during high water events.
The city's 20-year plan is a $380 million one. McFoy hopes that $100 million of that will be for green infrastructure projects.
"We want to manage that water right where it falls," McFoy said.
Green infrastructure includes installing porous asphalt streets and sidewalks, rain barrels and eliminating impervious surfaces so rainwater finds its way into the ground.
One of several projects that have been installed around the city includes the Ohio Street corridor.
Another is Scajaquada Creek.
Over the last 10 years, $136 million has been spent on improving sewage infrastructure in Buffalo.
"We want to make sure water stays out of our system, but once it gets in, we want to make sure it gets treated at our treatment plant," McFoy said.
Because of the updates to the city's sewer infrastructure, between March and May 2016, more than 13 million gallons of sewage was prevented from overflowing into creeks and streams in the city, McFoy said.
Sean Burkholder, assistant professor of architecture and planning at the University at Buffalo:
Sean Burkholder, assistant professor of architecture and planning at the University at Buffalo, said there's a misconception that Great Lakes cities are shrinking.
From a watershed perspective, though, that's not true. In fact, populations around Great Lakes watersheds are growing quickly, he said, but there are still problems getting to them.
"Twenty percent of our shoreline is accessible, and it's 100 percent ours," Burkholder said.
He advocates as a designer to re-acquire spots to increase accessibility and increase public involvement including at post-industrial landscapes and others that have "evolved and changed through time."
One local example would be Times Beach, he said.
Jajean Rose-Burney, deputy executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy:
Jajean Rose-Burney, deputy executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy, is promoting getting "Ramsar designation" for the Niagara River.
"Ramsar" is an "honor" which mission is "the conservation and wise use of all wetlands."
There are 2,231 Ramsar sites -- 38 in the U.S. and 37 in Canada. Among them, the Florida Everglades is a Ramsar site.
"We think that the Niagara River should have this honor," Rose-Burney said.
The Western New York Land Conservancy has been working for four years and counting to get the Niagara River named a Ramsar site.
"It's one of the most ecologically and culturally important places in the world," Rose-Burney said.
Those include rare fish and plant species and scenic sites.
"For a century or more, we didn't treat the river well," he said. "It's probably healthier now than it has been in generations."
It would be the first "trans-boundary" Ramsar site.
The site must meet one of nine ecological criteria. "The Niagara River meets eight of the nine criteria. And, the Canadian site meets all nine."
Dr. Alicia Perez-Fuentetaja, aquatic biologist at SUNY Buffalo State's Great Lakes Center:
Dr. Alicia Perez-Fuentetaja, aquatic biologist at SUNY Buffalo State's Great Lakes Center, talked about research she's doing regarding the emerald shiner fish in the Buffalo Niagara region.
"The emerald shiner is actually the glue to the ecosystem of the Niagara River," Perez-Fuentetaja said.
The emerald shiner is being challenged by historical modifications to its habitat, she said.
"All these changes have created a habitat that makes it very, very difficult for these fish to reproduce in," Perez-Fuentataja said.
Walleye and steelhead trout feed primarily on emerald shiner as well as the common tern, a threatened species in New York.
"When the emerald shiner fails, these birds also suffer stress and reproductive failure," Perez-Fuentataja said.
What would be needed are:
- Improvements in water quality and water velocity (vertical bulkheads make it hard for the emerald shiner to make it in and out of Lake Erie)
- Softer shorelines
- Enhancing existing wetlands to provide nursery habitats for fish larvae
- Creating wetlands where they have been taken out, like the island archipelago that's been added to the Niagara River
- Controling invasive herbivorous fish (common rudd) and invasive plants
- Installing fish ladders to allow for fish to pass between the Upper Niagara River and Lake Erie
Diana S. Aga, Henry M. Woodburn professor of chemistry, University at Buffalo:
Diana S. Aga, the Henry M. Woodburn professor of chemistry at UB, talked about "emerging contaminants" to the environment, including antibiotics and pharma, personal care products, estrogens and other hormones, flame retardants and nanomaterials.
"They have adverse effects even at very low levels," Aga said.
Emergent contaminants are in some ways even worse than past-generation contaminants like PCBs and DDT, because they can be as much as 1,o00 times more toxic.
"The thing about these chemicals is they are bio-accumulative," Aga said.
Aga's presentation showed PBDE pollution (flame retardants) in the water get into fish and make their way all the way up the food chain. She said a blood test of almost any of the 100 or so people in the room would show the presence of PBDE.
Pharmaceuticals include anti-depressant drugs, contraceptives, antibiotics, anti-histamine and caffeine. They are detected in sampling across waters leading into the Niagara River.
They are "psycho-active" drugs, which mean they affect the brain.
Krystyn Tully, vice president of Swim Drink Fish Canada and co-founder of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper:
Krystyn Tully, vice president of Swim Drink Fish Canada and co-founder of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, said she was happy to be in Buffalo for something other than a hockey game.
Tully said "the ability to touch the water without getting sick" is the fundamental way to tell the health of the lakes.
"The fact that we have clean, drinkable water is the strongest competitive advantage that we have," Tully said.
But, she said, "The Great Lakes as they are today are not okay."
That's because of barriers to the Great Lakes:
- Perceptions that they're polluted and unusable
- Knowledge as to where to go to enjoy the lakes
- Public access points are limited
Tully showed a picture of Toronto's harbor with a sewage overflow.
"You get to the water, but you can't touch it, you can't go into it," she said.
Tully said wastewater overflows are one of the chief problems that must be addressed immediately.
"At the end of the day, it is one coast. It is one shoreline we all share," Tully said.
Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper's executive director:
Riverkeeper was founded 27 years ago from all-volunteers to let the community know "there is a Buffalo River, there is a lake out there."
"We have a unique story here in Western New York and it's an international model throughout the world," said Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper's executive director.
It's evolved into an organization of 25 full-time professionals working to improve water quality in the Buffalo Niagara region.
"It's not just about the water itself, it's about enhancing the communities," Jedlicka said.
Jedlicka showed photos of Scajaquada Creek from the early 20th century and said the public demanded the 3-1/2-mile creek be tunneled from Cheektowaga to Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Areas of the East Side "should be waterfront communities, but they're not."
Jedlicka said the Buffalo Niagara region must:
- Invest in infrastructure, including at the water's source
- Watchdog the environment, including citizen involvement
- Connect young people to the water and its importance to the region
- Advocate for pro-Great Lakes policies
- Re-envisioning the future around "a blue economy"
Lana Pollack, the U.S. chair for the International Joint Commission:
"We are all here for the benefits for the waters that are shared," said Lana Pollack, the U.S. chairperson for the IJC.
It was the original IJC study in the 1960s of the problems on lakes Erie and Ontario that lead to the 1972 water quality agreement between the U.S. and Canada.
Mistakes of past generations are "profoundly disturbing" and "profoundly expensive," Pollack said.
Pollack said when governments make bad decisions or neglect the lakes or make harmful regulations, it hurts the lakes.
"What we're here today to do is to hear from some experts ... hear from the public ... and thereby advise the governments ... as to how the lakes might best be protected," Pollack said.