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Editorial: Buffalo River is better, but still damaged

It’s not so unusual these days to see a kayaker slicing through the Buffalo waters, paddling back and forth and maybe being intercepted by another watercraft.

It can be easy to forget that the Buffalo River and its environs were not always as hospitable. There was a time when the river was so polluted no one dared get near it. Thanks to a concerted grass-roots effort, access to the waterways has greatly improved, feeding the billion-dollar “blue economy” that includes fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, standup paddling and other water sports.

But those same grass-roots individuals want to remind everyone there is still a lot of work left in cleaning up area waterways.

More than $50 million has been spent this decade to remove lead, mercury, PCBs and other poisons from the shorelines of the Buffalo River, creating rewards for humans and for wildlife. People were finally able to enjoy that environment. But even recreational enthusiasts may not realize how much better things could be.

The fact it, the Buffalo River remains one of the unhealthiest rivers in New York. It is ahead only of the Lower Bronx River, East Hudson River, the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn and Flushing Creek. The information comes from the first-ever statewide analysis mapping of the environmental health of 1,673 subwatersheds.

None of this comes as a surprise to people such as Jill S. Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, and the organization’s volunteers. They talk about the marathon. Jedlicka envisions more hard work producing future results. It’s just getting there.

The statewide analysis showed the Buffalo River to be the fifth unhealthiest River in New York State. But then there are others: Two Mile Creek in Tonawanda is the 11th worst in that analysis, conducted by the Natural Heritage Program of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite trees and shrubs along the Buffalo River shoreline, natural habitat for wildlife is limited. More disappointing is what mankind is doing to the environment, including the penchant for paving over paradise. It damages the environment and all who inhabit it. Plainly, the need for environmental groups will always exist, at the grass roots, state and federal levels.

Fortunately, organizations such as Waterkeeper are keeping watch and taking action. The group has over the past few years been at the forefront in habitat restoration. Its members have planted native shrubs and trees that help to stabilize shorelines, increase wildlife habitat and absorb stormwater runoff. The work has affected seven sites along six-plus miles of the river between Bailey Avenue and Canalside.

This work was done after a couple of years of “intensive” dredging of the Buffalo River channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Hazardous chemicals, the residue of hundred years of industry, had to be extracted.

These waters were given to us pure and then human expediency polluted them. Now, they’re coming back.

Various groups and stakeholders are trying to figure out how best to preserve and utilize Western New York’s greatest natural resource. That is especially important as Canalside and the Inner and Outer harbors develop into valuable community assets. Water in a time of climate change is more crucial than ever.

Cleaning up the mess made over decades will be an ongoing effort. Studies and action plans, along with governmental funding will strengthen the good works being done at the grass roots level and by responsible state and federal agencies.

Repairing the environment takes time, effort and money. It requires patience and the willingness to do the work. In the meantime, we need to make sure not to mess it up again.

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