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Editorial: Restoration of our waterways has been almost miraculous

How many places in America have abused their environments worse than we did in Western New York? Some, no doubt, but the regional supply of contaminated lands, polluted waterways and diminished wildlife testifies to a calamitous past.

And yet …

The Buffalo River today is cleaner than it has been in generations and it’s continuing to improve. Brownfields are being remediated and reused. And on the Niagara River, restored habitats are turning islands and their surroundings into bedrooms and breeding grounds for species once driven away by environmental degradation. There’s a lesson in all of that: We are not helpless.

It’s the area around Strawberry Island, just off the southern tip of Grand Island, that offers the most visible and joyful evidence of the efforts of humans to undo the damage that had been inflicted by humans. The land and water are alive with wildlife, including a nesting pair of bald eagles, a species that was once on the verge of extinction.

It’s not just eagles, either. Herons are commonly seen, along with egrets, osprey and cormorants. Kingfishers are also among the residents. So, too, are terns, turtles and mink. Otters, lake sturgeon and muskellunge swim in the waters.

This is a wonderful achievement, and not just for the creatures who directly benefit. Their return also marks a turning point for Western New York, whose residents can enjoy the sights of wildlife off the banks of a reviving city. The new inhabitants of the little islands serve as a kind of welcome mat to those considering moving here – human or otherwise. They amount to another sign that this is a new day in Buffalo.

It didn’t happen by accident. The Buffalo River is reviving because of millions of dollars of work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Brownfields are being reused because government incentives make the work financially viable.

The restoration of Strawberry Island and other islands around it is being funded by the New York Power Authority as part of its 2007 licensing agreement. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been chief among the drivers of these projects.

Indispensable in all of the water work is Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the nonprofit organization whose reason for existence is “protecting the quality and quantity of water, while connecting people to water.” In that, its presence has been invaluable and its shared successes nothing short of transformative.

Consider Frog Island. For a while, it vanished. The shoal-like area between Strawberry and Motor islands was overcome as high water, ice floes and erosion erased its eight acres.
Now, it’s back and bustling with life, including cormorants, herons, egrets and terns. Turtles have taken up residence and biologists expect muskellunge and small mouth bass will discover its delights, as well. Plants such as white hibiscus have taken root, as have the native boneset plant, warm-season grass species and others.

It’s a pattern repeated on Strawberry Island, Motor Island and Little Beaver Island, which was recently relieved of eight unwanted acres. Landfill was removed, nearly doubling the size of the channel of Beaver Creek, which now curves through a marshland around the island. Osprey and turtles have found it to their liking. So, presumably, will fish as they make use of a spawning and nursing area.

Waterkeeper is also restoring shorelines in Ellicott Creek Park in Tonawanda, the Sandy Beach Park Club on Grand Island and at Hyde Park in Niagara Falls.
For decades, Western New Yorkers – like most other Americans – paid scant attention to the environment or the consequences of its pollution. Today we know better and, sometimes, we are even willing to act on that knowledge. It costs money and takes effort, but who can deny the benefits?

Around Western New York, and especially in the Niagara River, we have once again made a home for the creatures with whom we share the planet and, in so doing, made our own home better, too. Well done, all. Don’t stop now.

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