Scajaquada Creek starts off so clean.
The spring water where the creek begins in Lancaster is so healthy that state environmental officials shade it blue on water quality maps.
But the stress starts a half-mile away near a new Walden Avenue subdivision. Its color turns yellow on the map.
When it reaches Transit Road – with more people, pavement and lawn pesticides around – the water keeps getting worse. The map colors this stretch of Scajaquada orange.
The creek gets so sick by the time it nears Walden Galleria – with stormwater runoff and sewer overflows now mixed in – environmental officials shade it red on their maps.
As the result, a state study classifies the Scajaquada Creek watershed as the 11th worst in New York State.
“From the moment that a molecule of water bubbles out of the ground, it runs a gauntlet of human impact,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.
A story in Monday’s Buffalo News introduced a newly mapped watershed assessment by the state Natural Heritage Program ranking the Buffalo River and Two Mile Creek among the New York's top dozen most stressed and unhealthy sub-watersheds out of nearly 1,700 statewide.
The story also prompted many to ask Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper about Scajaquada Creek. Why was a creek known for its filthiness omitted from the list?
It turns out the creek wasn’t omitted.
Waterkeeper officials say Scajaquada Creek was embedded in the study’s overarching Two Mile Creek sub-watershed. It’s really what drove down the marks for the sub-watershed – located between Niawanda Park and LaSalle Park and east into Lancaster.
The state assessment revealed the sickest part of Scajaquada Creek’s 29-square-mile watershed is found near the asphalt cloverleaf where the Kensington Expressway meets the New York State Thruway in Cheektowaga. The area – bounded roughly by Cleveland Drive to the north, Harlem Road to the west, Genesee Street to the south and Union Road to the east – ranked worst on both ecological health and environmental stress metrics evaluating water quality. It was also shaded in red by the assessment.
Urban and storm runoff, altered hydrology, wastewater, warm temperatures, impervious surfaces and lack of natural habitat and protection are several of those metrics.
"It's land use," Jedlicka said, characterizing the water quality problem.
Data shows this “catchment” – essentially a micro-basin inside a sub-watershed – is one of about a dozen such trouble spots supplying Scajaquada Creek. The worst of those other catchments are located to the east, which include the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Walden Galleria and the commercial strips along Union Road and Dick Road.
Among the Buffalo Niagara region’s unhealthiest streams, where would Scajaquada Creek rank on its own?
“I would definitely rank it as one of the top 3,” Jedlicka said.
The others, she said, would be Cayuga Creek and Eighteen Mile Creek in Niagara County, mainly because of chemical and industrial pollution. Although those also scored poorly on the state's assessment, data showed both were roughly half as a stressed as Scajaquada Creek.
A variety of human activities affect Scajaquada Creek along its 13-mile journey from Lancaster to the Black Rock Canal, Jedlicka said. Its hydrology was altered.
Many spots along the creek are channels, even forced underground in three separate places, including a more than four-mile jaunt between Pine Ridge and Forest Lawn. That eliminates opportunities for wetlands or other natural shoreline habitat. Redirecting its stream flow to accommodate developments led to physical changes along the creek and its watershed.
The creek’s chemical composition is also affected.
Population density, commercial and industrial development result in more impervious surfaces, which affect stormwater runoff and the chemicals that come with it like road salt, fertilizer and other pollutants.
Then, there are the sewage overflows from wastewater operations in Cheektowaga, Depew and Buffalo.
“We’re using the creek itself as a release valve,” Jedlicka said. "We're looking at opportunities to relieve stormwater input on the system."
Chief among those are eliminating illegal connections of downspouts, storm drains and sump pumps to the sanitary sewer system, she said. Studies showed those issues have long contributed to overwhelming wastewater systems in Depew and Cheektowaga during times of heavy rains. That, in turn, leads to sewage overflows, which pollute Scajaquada Creek.
After cleaning up and restoring habitat along the Buffalo River, the Waterkeeper group has focused on Scajaquada Creek over the last couple of years.
Several projects are underway or wrapping up along the creek.
The Buffalo Sewer Authority, under a consent order with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is upgrading its sewer system and reducing overflows into Scajaquada Creek. It also completed dredging work in the creek last year to remove pollutants near the Buffalo History Museum.
Cheektowaga is using state funds to line its aged sewer system to reduce the amount of infiltration by stormwater into its sanitary system with aims at cutting its overflows into creeks and streams.
Meanwhile, contractors are expected to wrap up work this year creating natural flood control at two spots in Forest Lawn.
Waterkeeper is currently in a process of "partnership building" to get more of Scajaquada Creek cleaned up near its mouth in Black Rock where a brownfield cleanup program is underway on Niagara Street, Jedlicka added.