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Water quality is key to the waterfront’s future

Water dripped off their kayaks as Joe Dzikoski and Jake Buczek pulled their boats from the Buffalo River last week.

The sun was blazing, but the guys didn’t give a thought to swimming. On this urban waterway, they could see the iridescent shimmer of something oily and smell the faint stench of industry past. Not far from where they launched, a green sign marked the point where sewage overflows into the water when the rain gets heavy.

“It’s pretty dirty,” said Buczek, as he strapped his boat on top of a car.

Don’t get them wrong. They loved the trip down the Buffalo River. Navigating aside the cavernous grain elevators that hug the river feels a bit like an urban version of floating through a river canyon.

Sound echoes off the buildings. Water laps against pylons. Bridges creak open for ships that pass underneath.

But at this bend in the river, where the water snakes by the lush green Red Jacket River Front Park, you see two distinct tales: Buffalo has made incredible progress in reconnecting people to the water, but so much work remains to be done to ensure the water is clean and viable for the future.

Two decades ago, the site of Red Jacket park was just another spot where industry dominated the water’s edge. Today, it’s an area where people can fish, hike and launch canoes.

Progress is zipping along on the waterfront from the river to the outer harbor. But work to address pollutants that impact the water’s health has only plodded along. What happened this month in Toledo, Ohio, where residents were cut off from their drinking supply because of toxins in the water, is a reminder of just how fragile it remains.

“We’ve treated Lake Erie like it’s this bottomless pit that can just continue to absorb all of our waste with no repercussions,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. “What we’re seeing is that Lake Erie is sick again, and it’s sick because of the human activity. We have the power and the influence to make it better.” While we haven’t seen the type of toxins that shut down Toledo’s water supply, there’s another problem pulsing below the ground. Like many old cities, Buffalo’s sewer system dates back to a time when federal laws permitted the overflow of wastewater into rivers and lakes during heavy rain storms. Billions of gallons of wastewater pour into the Buffalo and Niagara rivers each year.

The good news is there’s a plan in place to fix it after years of talks between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Jedlicka praised city leaders for including innovative “green” components into the plan.

The bad news is the scope and cost of the plan mean it will take 20 years to implement. And all that work – while critical for our future – won’t get the kind of attention that downtown development will see. Sewage just isn’t sexy.

Back at Red Jacket park on Friday, Eddy Dobosiewicz enjoyed a picnic lunch. Nearby, a crane hummed as it dredged contaminants from the water. He remembered riding his bike to the same spot when he was 10.

“I think what has happened here on the water in my lifetime is nothing short of miraculous,” said Dobosiewicz, one of the city’s biggest boosters and the man behind Forgotten Buffalo tours.

If we want that miracle to continue, we’ve got to continue to think not just about what we build along the shores, but how we treat the water down below.