Scajaquada Creek had the undivided attention of New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie for about half an hour Monday.
Looking down at a stretch of the polluted and sewage-fouled creek just west of Cheektowaga Town Park, Heastie also saw the broken trash gates that are supposed to keep debris out of the water.
Laying against two of the five trash gates were assorted bottles, cans and plastic bags, an old hiking boot, an overturned mail crate and a metal crutch. The other three trash gates, which are supposed to help siphon trash from the 3.5-mile tunnel that carries the water from Cheektowaga to Forest Lawn Cemetery, were missing entirely.
Heastie's appearance by this set of creek trash gates was part thank-you, part lobbying effort for the region to claim a stake of the state's $2.5 billion funding for the Clean Water Infrastructure Act. So far, $1 million has been awarded in the state's 2017-18 budget to address sewage dumping in Scajaquada Creek.
That's not nearly enough. So the lobbying effort to secure more money has to start now, local leaders said. Competition will be heavy.
"We already know there's $30 billion in clean water programs across the state," said Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
So of all the places that local leaders could have taken Heastie in his rare public appearance in Western New York to see how things are going, they took him to the spot where rusting and missing trash gates stand as a primitive defense against large debris in Scajaquada Creek, keeping it from entering the narrow 1937 tunnel.
Heastie last took a summer tour through the state two years ago when he first became speaker. He was repeating his tour this time around to make good on his commitment to understanding the needs of the rest of the state, not just downstate issues, he said.
Wearing a black polo shirt embroidered with his name and title, he looked over the creek thoughtfully as Jedlicka, Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski and 143rd District Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, educated him about one of the most polluted waterways in Erie County, containing millions of gallons of overflow sewage.
The creek runs through Lancaster, Depew, Cheektowaga and Buffalo, and is also regulated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, various municipal sewer districts and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Heastie asked if the different stakeholders have any formal agreement for shared responsibility for the creek. Officials responded that the answer is currently no, but communities are in the process of building a strategy to do that so that they can put in a strong application for the state's clean water program.
Though the speaker pledged no particular money or support toward local clean water efforts, leaving agenda-setting to the Western New York delegation, he said he is committed to seeing all parts of the state thrive.
"I just want to come and let people see I care about this area," he said. "For me to see the work that needs to be done can only help."