Despite such highly publicized pollution hot spots as the Buffalo River, the overall quality of water in the Buffalo area is not that bad and isn't likely to get much worse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday in its first assessment of the quality of watersheds across the nation.
Problems are more severe along the Lake Ontario shoreline in Niagara County and points east, the EPA said.
The assessment showed that much of the Southern Tier has a very healthy watershed, with few future problems in sight.
The EPA study aimed to look beyond the trouble spots and assess the overall quality of each watershed in America, including the status of their fisheries, the level of contaminated sediments in waterways, the amount of toxins in the water and the amount of wetland loss.
By those standards, the two watersheds in the immediate Buffalo area get a ranking of three on a scale of one to six, with one being a watershed with excellent water quality and six signifying serious water quality problems.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner said those rankings can give Buffalonians a sense of the area's overall water quality instead of just focusing on trouble spots.
"People need to know the quality of their watersheds," she said. "Hopefully this will show people where the water quality is good and where it's not the best and get people to work so that what's now not among the best will be among the best."
The Buffalo-Eighteenmile watershed, which stretches from Buffalo east to Genesee County and then south past the Erie County line, received a middling ranking in the study because its problems and assets essentially balanced out in the end.
The EPA said the area ranked high in contaminated sediments, fish advisories and wetland loss, but those problems were balanced by a low level of toxins and other contaminants in most water sources, including ground water.
The area's greatest danger for future pollution comes from urban runoff and agricultural runoff from pesticides and other contaminants, but in general, the area has a low vulnerability to future water pollution, the report said.
The Niagara watershed, which stretches from the Tonawandas to Niagara Falls and through Amherst and points east, is almost a carbon copy of the Buffalo-Eighteenmile watershed, except that it faces a greater threat from agricultural runoff.
To the north of that, however, there are greater problems. The Oak Orchard-Twelvemile watershed, which stretches along Lake Ontario through northern Niagara County and then eastward to the Rochester suburbs, scores a five on the EPA's six-point water quality score sheet.
That watershed shares all the problems of the Buffalo-area watersheds and has the added problem of an unusual number of contaminants in many bodies of water. Agricultural runoff is a particularly serious danger for the future in the Lake Ontario-area watershed.
A watershed is an area of land, bounded by ridge lines, in which all rain and snow drainage flow in the same direction to the same place. They are small environmental systems in which the various lakes, rivers, streams and ground water are ultimately connected.
Nationwide, 16 percent of watersheds have good water quality, 36 percent -- including the two Buffalo watersheds -- have moderate water quality, 21 percent have more serious problems, and 27 percent can't be ranked because there aren't sufficient data.
"We believe that the best way to achieve cleaner water is to protect the more than 2,000 watersheds in this country," Ms. Browner said.
She said she hopes citizens will get involved in pressing for cleaner water after seeing details of the water quality in their own neighborhood. To do that, the EPA put all its watershed information on the Internet at the address www.epa.gov/surf/iwi.