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Editorial: Its name has evolved to Waterkeeper, but its essential mission remains the same

The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is now the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. It’s only a change in name, but given its mission and the dramatic array of waterways here, the new designation makes sense.

The nonprofit organization is dedicated to protecting the quality and quantity of water in Western New York, and the evidence suggests it is doing a good job. That’s important, since water – two Great Lakes, one major river and lots of smaller ones – is without question the region’s greatest natural resource. It needs a champion and, in the Waterkeeper, it has one.

The name change coincided with the release of the organization’s 2017 annual report, which cites four broad areas for addressing issues related to the region’s waterways: protection strategies; restoration priorities; making human connections; and inspiring investment. Each is divided into subcategories, many of which are familiar. They include minimizing sewer overflows such as those that have recently befouled Niagara Falls and which regularly close Erie County beaches. That, in fact, is an urgent requirement that state funding approved earlier this year should help to address.

The report also cites the need to protect drinking water resources, remediate contamination, enhance fish and wildlife habitat and inform Great Lakes and water policies. The Waterkeeper has had a hand in many such projects already. For example, it played a part in the restoration effort in the Buffalo River, once all but dead, and within five to 10 years is expected to support swimming and fishing. That’s a turnaround few would have expected to see so quickly. It will make a difference in our quality of life.

The Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper has also helped to restore Strawberry Island as a fish and bird habitat, protecting – among other creatures – a nesting pair of bald eagles.

Also significant, but poorly understood, is the Waterkeeper’s goal of shepherding the creation of a “blue economy,” which simultaneously uses and respects the region’s tremendous water resource. That’s the future.

As much as solar power or medical muscle, the blue economy needs to be a driver of Western New York’s 21st century prosperity. Water may well be to this century as oil was to the last. Especially in the Southwest, water is a precious commodity and here, along the shores of two Great Lakes, we are blessed with abundance.

Indeed, that is among the reasons, beyond the basic obligation of stewardship, to protect and heal the lakes, once abused as dumping grounds for all manner of pollution. It is not only our responsibility as caretakers, but our economic self-interest to ensure that our waterways are clean and able to support a variety of fish, birds and other wildlife.

That’s the value of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. Its mission reflects a fundamental need of all of Western New York. If the organization didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented or risk leaving this irreplaceable resource without the leadership that it requires.

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