BUFFALO, New York – When the state of New York and this post-industrial city don’t have the resources to seek government funding for water preservation projects, Julie Barrett O’Neill’s staff step in.
“There is a lack of capacity at the state and city level,” said the executive director of nonprofit group Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, which works to promote, preserve and protect the environments of the Buffalo and Niagara rivers. “There’s not a lot of infrastructure so we have to step in.”
“We have wound up taking a much bigger role in tackling Buffalo’s water issues than you might expect,” she added on a windswept tour of a section of the Niagara River where fishermen come to catch fish, many of them to feed their families.
Canada is just across the river, with homes right down to the river bank. This section of the swift-flowing river – 12 miles an hour, 200,000 cubic feet per second – was part of the Underground Railroad, an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by black slaves in the 19th century to escape to Canada.
So far the 20 or so staff at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper have brought up to $12 million in funding to Buffalo, with another $50 million to come over the next two years.
The group is now looking at ways to access some of the $475 million set aside by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as part of the Great Lakes Initiative, aimed at restoring the Great Lakes. Together the Great Lakes contain 22 percent of the world’s fresh water.
“There is a growing recognition at the federal level of the importance of the Great Lakes as a water reserve,” Barrett O’Neill said. “Taking care of that resource will be cheaper in the long run than some of the alternatives, such as desalination.”
She says that the group has its work cut out for it, as Buffalo’s industrial past has left a legacy of environmental destruction.
Barrett O’Neill says that toxic sediment dating back to the city’s manufacturing heyday has built up on the bed of the Niagara River and needs to be cleaned up.
She also took us to have a look at an old, flat industrial area along the banks of the Scajaquada Creek, which has been polluted by polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs — man-made organic chemicals which were banned in 1979. Barrett O’Neill says the group hopes to use this industrial wasteland to store rainwater and prevent it flowing into the city’s sewer system.
“A city like this is like a Victorian house, there are a lot of old issues that need to be dealt with,” she said. “We can’t prevent a lot of the pollution, but we can find ways to limit the damage.”
Photos by Brian Snyder