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Army Corps project will turn pond near Squaw Island into vibrant wetlands

The once-dead Buffalo River is alive again.

Now it’s time to spread the soil from the river’s rebirth across the region.

The job of dredging contaminated sediment from the Buffalo River and removing it to a safe location has been completed in a multimillion-dollar project. But in the springs to come, more sediment will be deposited on the river bottom that must be removed to keep the river navigable. What happens to that?

It turns out this sediment from the newly cleaned river bed will be used to refurbish a stagnant – and historically dangerous – pond on the north end of Squaw Island in a new plan for the Great Lakes. http://www.lrb.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/PublicReviewDocuments

The Army Corps of Engineers will create a five-acre, vibrant, shallow wetland habitat out of the isolated and deep pond and at the same time naturally reconnect about 50 feet with the Niagara River.

“We’re trying to restore what was lost over all these years,” said Mark Lester, who developed the Corps’ plan.

Large and smallmouth bass, northern pike, the great blue heron and other wildlife species are quickly re-emerging along the Niagara River. This roughly $3 million project, when complete in fall 2017, will give them just one more place to call home.

Another aim is to make the pond safer.

Although “no swimming” signs are posted at the pond, several youth have drowned in the area in recent years after seeking to cool off in the attractive, out-of-the-way watering hole.

The depth of the pond drops off quickly from its banks to a depth of 16 feet.

When the Corps’ project is finished, it won’t be any deeper than five feet.

Although swimming will remain prohibited, engineers will build in additional safety features to prevent future drownings.

The Corps will use the equivalent of 31 Olympic-sized swimming pools of Buffalo River sediment during future dredging to fill in a large portion of the pond. Some of the dredged material will form the base of a nearly two-acre emerging wetland.

The remaining three acres of the pond will remain underwater.

It’s all happening because the Buffalo River’s century-old legacy of contamination is finally ending.

More than two years of day-and-night dredging on the river’s 6.2-mile corridor is nearly complete.

The restoration of the river – a public, private and nonprofit partnership under the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Great Lakes Legacy Act – will free the waters of sediment contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals and other toxic material.

Most of that contaminated sediment is interred at a Corps-operated facility on the Outer Harbor at the former site of Bethlehem Steel. The rest is being landfilled.

To allow for passage of commercial vessels, the Corps historically dredges the Buffalo River’s federal navigation channel every two to three years to keep its depth at about 22 feet, as rainfall and the annual snow melt wash sediment downstream from tributaries like Buffalo, Cayuga and Cazenovia creeks.

The sediment, before this clean-up, has always been contaminated.

That doesn’t need to happen anymore.

“It’s really the first time we’ve had the opportunity to do this for beneficial use,” said David Schulenberg, the Corps’ program manager on the project.

And, the first of its kind on this part of the Great Lakes.

“One to two others exist in the Great Lakes,” Schulenberg said. “There’s nothing in this immediate region.”

A similar project was undertaken in 2012 to restore the Cat Islands in Green Bay, Wis., in a project slated for completion this year. There, three islands that washed away about a half century ago were restored. Corps documents said the $22 million project used “noncontaminated material dredged from Green Bay Outer Harbor” to “re-create ecologically vital wetlands for the benefit of fish, wildlife and natural vegetation.”

Locally, Corps officials said, their plan is an opportunity to begin the restoration of wetlands that, at one time in Buffalo’s history, were common along the eastern end of Lake Erie. Its industrial past left the area with just a fraction of that – mainly at the Tifft Nature Preserve site.

“Coastal wetlands are virtually non-existent along Lake Erie in the vicinity of Buffalo as thousands of acres of coastal wetlands have been lost along the Lake Erie/Niagara River shoreline,” the Corps’ project manager Ken Podsiadlo said.

The shoreline is home to 80 species of fish and a vital stopover for 300 bird species traveling along the Atlantic Flyway.

With new plantings and restoration of a 50-foot weir allowing for a natural connection between the Niagara River and the pond, Corps officials said birds will have more sources of food and fish will find more places to spawn, nurse or forage.

“It’s going to improve the diversity and quantity of fish and bird species,” Podsiadlo said. “It’s the plan that gives us the biggest bang for our buck.”

The work at Squaw Island can be completed with material collected during a single dredging cycle on the river.

The project would be about two-thirds funded by the federal government with the remaining one-third – about $1 million – being picked up by the City of Buffalo, which officials say is pursuing Greenway funding to cover its portion.

The Corps is inviting comments from the public on the plan through Nov. 14. Comments can be submitted by email to buffalo-bu@usace.army.mil or by regular mail to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: Environmental Analysis Team, 1776 Niagara St., Buffalo, NY 14207-3199.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com