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Another Voice: Unity Island restoration project is a triumph of teamwork

By Adam J. Czekanski

After joining the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Buffalo District two years ago, I learned quickly that success as an organization depends greatly on our ability to effectively team with partners at the local, state and federal levels. As an organization we have worked to develop effective teams and support local leadership – common ingredients that have led to project successes, most recently validated by the beneficial use of dredged material project at Unity Island.

Taking sediment from the Buffalo River to restore ecosystems would have been a laughable proposition 20 years ago. The river was heavily polluted from sewage discharges during the 1800s, and industrial waste and storm sewer discharges during the 1900s. Pollutant loadings into the river didn’t decrease until passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, aided by the decline of heavy industry operating along the river. More than six miles of the Buffalo River, and 440 square miles of its watershed, were officially designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989, a designation that remains to this day.

The Area of Concern designation served as a forcing function to develop and implement organized measures to improve the condition of the Buffalo River and its surrounding ecosystems. A holistic effort ensued with great cooperation and collaboration between Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the City of Buffalo, Erie County, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Regulations decreased pollutant loads into the river, and the focus turned toward cleaning what remained. Strong support and advocacy from elected leaders at all levels of government contributed to three decades of critical projects encompassing invasive species eradication, ecosystem restoration, and environmental dredging that have improved the health of the river.

The critical moment for Unity Island occurred when leaders from the City of Buffalo and NYSDEC placed their trust in the results of our extensive sampling of the sediment in the uppermost reach of the Buffalo River. Last month, 55,000 cubic yards of that sediment, which historically would be placed in confined disposal facilities due to the presence of contaminants, was instead taken to the northern end of Unity Island and used for aquatic habitat construction.

Successes occur when you take a “whole of government” approach and develop strong teams. The leaders within the City of Buffalo and the NYSDEC who pursued creative uses for dredged sediment, and embraced this team concept, helped make Unity Island a Great Lakes success story.

This is the beginning and not the end of the story. We all now see that dredged sediment is a valued resource that can be used beneficially to meet collective goals. This partnership is what right looks like, and demonstrates what is possible in Buffalo and across the Great Lakes.

Adam J. Czekanski is Buffalo district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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