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Woodlawn Beach, often closed by sewage runoff, will benefit from major cleanup project

It’s always a good time to prevent sewage from flowing into our waterways, but as Buffalo begins the joyful process of reclaiming its long-squandered waterfront, the moment is especially appropriate.

A $16 million project is under way in Hamburg near Woodlawn Beach. When completed, it will significantly diminish the chronic problems of sewage and bacterial contamination that regularly put one of Lake Erie’s otherwise finest beaches off limits for long stretches every summer.

Buffalo’s waterfront is the natural element that makes the city unique. Yes, Buffalo has incredible architecture and stunning parks that add to its luster, but the waterfront is the constant that influences all else, and for decades, Buffalo – like many other waterfront cities – abused its most valuable resource. Lake Erie, the Buffalo River and other waterways were dumping grounds for industrial waste, municipal sewage and pollution of all sorts.

It was easy to ignore and, up to a point, easy not to notice the damage. Those days are gone. Events such as today’s Earth Day have raised awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving our environment, for its own sake as well as the health of future generations for whom we are stewards of the planet and the places on it where we live.

Now, Buffalo is in the midst of restoring its connection to the water. Canalside has opened the Inner Harbor to recreational use and tens of thousands of people are taking advantage. The Outer Harbor will soon undergo its own transformation into some form of park, though the specifics remain a matter of debate. A ferry is scheduled to connect the Inner and Outer harbors. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Buffalo River last year as part of a project that is expected eventually to make what was once a toxic dump swimmable for humans and habitable for fish. It’s an exciting transformation that will be remembered decades from now.

But it’s important not just to look at the water, but to make use of it and, too often, Woodlawn Beach is unusable – not just unpleasant, but life-threatening. Tom Kacalski, who was soccer coach at Lackawanna High School, died last summer from a suspected freshwater bacterial infection that he picked up at Woodlawn Beach, where raw sewage periodically contaminates the water. The project now under way will help to alleviate that.

The first phase of the project will divert sewage from an older, smaller treatment plant that is unable to handle the volume to a bigger plant that will soon be able to accommodate the overflows that occur during heavy storms. The project will, thankfully, also include an odor control component that will help to alleviate the stench that accompanies those overflows.

The second phase of the project, installation of a gravity sewer, will begin later this spring. When the entire project is completed by the end of next year, it will eliminate two areas where sewage directly discharges into Rush Creek and another where it discharges into Blasdell Creek.

Alone, this project won’t fix all of the problems at Woodlawn Beach, which is also subject to bacterial growths caused by stormwater outfalls, urban runoff, contaminated stream drainage and algae and leafy debris. The hope is that future projects will deal with those issues.

But this is an important start, and it comes along at the most propitious moment in decades. Not only is Buffalo coming back economically, but it is doing it environmentally, as well. This may be our best Earth Day yet.