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Habitat restoration to begin at seven sites along Buffalo River

A century’s worth of industrial toxins are gone from the Buffalo River. Now, the ecological restoration begins, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper announced Monday.

The next phase of the Buffalo River rehabilitation, a two-year effort, covers about 20 acres at seven sites along the river.

“We are moving on from our past,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. “We are breathing new life into the river now with this new suite of projects.”

The nearly $5 million endeavor – funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – comes from a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Great Lakes Commission and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

Years of dredging and hauling away a panoply of industrial pollutants put the groups in a position to transform the river shoreline by eliminating invasive species, restoring the slopes of the riverbanks as well as planting native trees and flora in an effort to promote greater ecological diversity, habitat for wildlife and public access to the water, said Matt Mattison, Riverkeeper’s assistant director of bioregional and urban design.

“Instead of anchoring the shoreline with a sheet piling, we’re anchoring it with a living infrastructure,” Mattison said. “In a sense, it’s a living wall.”

Eco-designers call them “soil burritos.”

The shorelines will be cleared of invasive plants and trees and their grades will be softened. Biodegradable blankets that wrap in the cuttings of willow, dogwood and alder trees will line the shore. The regenerative plants will quickly evolve into a cohesive root network promoting a stable and natural shoreline, Mattison said.

Besides reducing erosion and sedimentation in the river, the restored natural shoreline will also reduce stormwater runoff.

The projects provide for habitat restoration along the banks of the lower river at RiverBend, River Fest Park, the Blue Tower Turning Basin, Old Bailey Woods, the Ohio Street boat launch, Katherine Street peninsula and Buffalo Color Peninsula, formerly one of the most toxic sites in Buffalo.

“For several years, we’ve been pulling out and removing the toxic sediment and the toxic contamination from the river,” Jedlicka said. “That’s the hard part.”

The next step is breathing “new life” into the waterway by restoring nearly two miles of shoreline.

“We were one of the most toxic hot spots in the nation and in the Great Lakes,” Jedlicka said. “We have been able to accomplish what was almost deemed impossible – that’s restoring a river that was declared dead.”

When three great blue herons serendipitously flew over Riverkeeper’s morning event, Jedlicka wouldn’t let that moment pass.

“How very poetic,” she noted.

It won’t just be waterfowl benefiting from the next phase of work on the river.

The river corridor is home to a few rare species – including the flat-headed garter snake and the spiny softshell turtle – as well as more common animals like beavers, deer, muskrats, weasels and aquatic animals like bass and the panfish.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a founding member of Friends of the Buffalo River, which evolved into the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said the river declared “biologically dead” by the EPA in the late 1960s is now alive.

“The quiet waterfront renaissance, if you will, is occurring right here on the river,” Higgins said. “First the cleanup of all the contaminants in the river … now shoreline habitat and restoration, which is such a big, big part of it.”

“Now, Army Corps of Engineers officials are saying the fish that are caught here will one day be suitable for human consumption.”

More than 2,000 projects have been completed under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to date, including six former “areas of concern” that have been delisted and 10 more that will be fully cleaned up and restored over the next five years, including the Buffalo River, according to Heather Braun, project manager at the Great Lakes Commission who was on hand for Monday’s announcement.

“What’s happening here in Buffalo is one of the most impressive, large-scale projects taking place,” Braun said.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who also attended Monday’s event, said, “This is an important part of our future now. The sky’s the limit of what we’re going to be able to do on a cleaned-up, refreshed waterway that can entice people, not just for recreation but for further economic development.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com