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Forum addresses pollution of waterways; Region needs plan, participants say

Western New York faces the costly task of cleaning up pollution in local waterways, yet the topic barely registers on the local political landscape, a Buffalo economics professor said on Saturday.

With at least hundreds of millions of dollars needed to address the problem -- which includes familiar culprits like combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff -- the region also has failed to begin setting up a plan to deal with it on the scale that accounts for full water systems, not political boundaries.

And at least one other place already has started working toward a regional solution, Buffalo State College's Bruce L. Fisher said.

"There isn't any discussion in politics about this," said Fisher, a visiting professor at Buffalo State, who asked whether help should be requested from the federal government.

Fisher's comments came during in a forum Saturday afternoon presented by the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State, which he directs.

Entitled "Clean Water and Western New York's Future," the two-hour session in Burchfield Penney Art Center featured a screening of a documentary film, "Everybody Lives Downstream," by Anna Scime. The film, which is part of a larger project involving Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and Squeaky Wheel, looked at the lower six miles of the Buffalo River and the current dredging project being undertaken there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Saturday's event also included a panel discussion moderated by Fisher and audience questions; panelists were Kim Irvine, Buffalo State geography professor; Richard Lipsitz, AFL-CIO Federation president; and Geoff Kelly, editor of Artvoice.

The challenges related to water quality facing the Buffalo area are also being faced in places including Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago, Fisher said.

In Cleveland and northeast Ohio, a regional framework has begun to address the problem, he said.

The Western New York Stormwater Coalition, an organization consisting of area governments that is developing a stormwater plan, has a process that appears to be "one step in the right direction," noted Irvine, who has studied contamination in local waterways.

Saturday's session, which also was co-sponsored by Artvoice and Greenwatch, was the first of four happening in the coming months. Fisher said he hopes they will lead to some type of material that can be presented to local elected officials for them to pick up and carry ahead.

If there is any project that makes sense for the community to rally around, Fisher said, "it's the water we need for life."