A national report released Tuesday described the work of a Buffalo program as one step toward fixing billions of dollars worth of Great Lakes water infrastructure.
“It’s something we would like see across Buffalo and the Great Lakes region,” said Radhika Fox, the CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance.
The Washington, D.C., non-profit water advocacy group called the collaboration between the Buffalo Sewer Authority and PUSH Buffalo as just the sort of program the Great Lakes need more of to achieve the sustainable water quality initiatives the organization put forth in its report.
The three-year-old program employs residents from low-income and minority neighborhoods to build green infrastructure projects across Buffalo. The U.S. Water Alliance devoted a page about the program in its 38-page report.
“The partnership is very promising,” Fox told reporters during a conference call.
Although still small, the “PUSH Blue” eco-landscaping team improved 221 properties where derelict buildings once stood — more than 19 acres in all.
Crews installed up to six inches of water-absorbing soil and low-maintenance turf on the sites after the buildings were demolished.
“While the demolition of blighted properties removes structures with environmental and structural hazards like asbestos and lead, the introduction of low-growing turf also promotes safe, healthy, walkable neighborhoods,” according to the report.
The newly landscaped properties also help alleviate storm runoff into the Buffalo sewer system, reducing sewage overflows into creeks and streams.
In the process, the program created 53 jobs, more than half filled by people of color from the African-American, Hispanic and Native American communities.
"PUSH Blue's eco-landscaping program has created significant benefit for both the West Side and the City of Buffalo," said Jenifer Kaminsky, PUSH's director of planning and community development.
"We have had the opportunity to partner with the Buffalo Sewer Authority to help address combined sewer overflow, which are considerable environmental burdens to residents across the city and especially lower-income neighborhoods," Kaminsky said. "This green approach not only creates infrastructure that addresses Buffalo's combined sewer overflow problem, but also provides new green space to neighborhoods and good green jobs."
Other aims in the Water Alliance report included:
• Help struggling water utilities improve service to customers;
• Address lead in water infrastructure;
• Strive for universal equity in climate planning and development, and;
• Leverage water improvements to benefit disinvested areas.
[Read the U.S. Water Alliance's report: 'An Equitable Water Future — Opportunities for the Great Lakes Region']
The report’s release came just before the start of the annual two-day “Great Lakes Days” when hundreds of advocates from the Great Lakes converge on the nation’s capital to promote the region’s priorities to Congress and to call attention to its needs.
“It’s really a timely moment to be releasing this report,” Fox said.
Fox said the crises that have befallen Great Lakes communities – including the Flint water crisis and Toledo’s toxic algae problem – emphasize the region’s needs.
The study used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and concluded that at least $167 billion in public water system infrastructure investments are needed to bring or keep water service up to snuff. About $50 billion is required in New York State alone, according to the report.
New York is in the second year of the state’s $2.5 billion investment into improving water infrastructure across the state.
Some of that money has already been tapped into by local communities, including Cheektowaga, which is working toward lining its sewer system in an effort to reduce overflows of sewage into waterways like Scajaquada Creek.
The Niagara Falls Water Board, under the oversight of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was also expected to apply for funding to repair its sewer system.
Other funds as part of the state’s investment are expected to go toward ridding lead from drinking water.
Studies in late 2016 showed high concentrations of lead at water fountains, sinks and other spigots in many area schools. Elevated lead levels are also suspected in many communities that serve low-income and minority residents.
“Buffalo is an older city, and the issue of lead in water is another challenge they face,” Fox said.