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Scajaquada Creek cleanup effort starts in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn cemetery

Ducks, geese, a hawk and a blue heron heralded the good side of Scajaquada Creek on Tuesday morning in Forest Lawn.

But a two-hour tour of the creek corridor also revealed the creek’s filthy underbelly: a plastic garbage can, litter, skiffs of algae and petroleum, and the pungent stench of raw sewage.

Cleaning up that mess begins now, according to officials from Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Here is where we can make that meaningful pivot from talking about problems to talking about solutions,” said Kerrie Gallo, deputy executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. “It’s one of the first projects that goes in the ground that works toward solutions for water quality.”

The $2 million project includes dredging contaminated areas of the creek channel in the cemetery as well as restoring habitat and natural flood plain areas along the creek. The work could start as early as this fall.

Starting the work inside Forest Lawn is a first step toward Scajaquada Creek’s long-term restoration, officials said.

“Starting here makes sense,” said Joseph P. Dispenza, president of Forest Lawn. “We’re accessible. We’re visible. And we’re secure.”

Dispenza said having a waterway like Scajaquada Creek running through the cemetery makes Forest Lawn unique for its 13,000 annual visitors.

The Army Corps of Engineers will dredge some of the most contaminated sediment in a stretch of the creek just east of the Delaware Avenue S-curves and create a 3-acre “backwater wetland.”

“It’s going to restore the general footprint of what was known as Swan Lake,” Gallo said.

In the late 1950s, that area was backfilled in an effort to control pollution.

The Corps of Engineers will construct a flood-plain wetland area designed to take on water with emergent plant species tolerant of both wet and dry conditions.

“The wetland will be inundated at least once a year, which will give the plants the necessary water to flourish,” said Dan Bennett, a hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps.

The vegetation expected to be planted there will vary, and all will have a role in ultimately cleaning up creek waters.

“That’s going to help filter some of the disgustingness out,” said Mike Voorhees, a Corps biologist. “It’s going to create biomass that can help suck up some of the nutrients, and generally, it’s going to help improve the water quality in the area.”

The other area of the creek marked for construction is just downstream of Serenity Falls in a channelized creek expanse near an area called “mausoleum row.” Natural groundwater is fed into the creek there, helping to dilute the more concentrated pollution released into the waters by sewage overflows farther upstream.

“One of those things about Forest Lawn Cemetery that makes this a great place to start … is the unique groundwater that runs all throughout Scajaquada Creek,” said Bill Frederick, a hydrogeologist with the Corps of Engineers.

Engineers plan to create a natural, vegetative flood plain to the creek’s edge.

“We don’t have a ton of cover along our waterway. We don’t have a ton of vegetation,” Frederick said. “We don’t have a connection between the creek and its flood plain. Those are all the things we want to put back.

“It allows habitat and animals and other critters to have greater access to the water.”

Scajaquada Creek, along with Cayuga, Smokes and Gill creeks, were recently added as tributaries eligible for certain federal funding connected to the Niagara River’s listing as a Great Lakes “Area of Concern” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The river was listed because it met the federal criteria as a waterway with a degraded environment.

The work at Forest Lawn is expected to be completed over the next two to three years. It is part of an overall watershed plan that includes reducing or eliminating upstream sewage overflows from the towns of Lancaster and Cheektowaga and reducing the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s combined sewage overflows from 64 incidents annually to four over the next decade.

Riverkeeper officials said they already have a working blueprint for rescuing Scajaquada Creek from its sordid history.

“We want to replicate what we were able to do in the Buffalo River in the Scajaquada Creek watershed,” Gallo said.