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Buffalo River getting cleaner and safer, forum declares

Downtown Buffalo's Central Library is a good walk from the Buffalo River or Canalside, but the river was the focus Thursday night during a public forum.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

It has taken millions of dollars to clean up the Buffalo River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin another dredging next week.

Now, in a bureaucratic and paperwork move, the dredging and much spending has allowed a local agency to say there is one less "beneficial use impairment" - basically, that the river just looks better and encourages use. "Degradation of aesthetics" has been declared resolved. Vicki Haas of Erie County's Environment and Planning Department said that is because the river is cleaner.

"It could still look dirty, but to a lot of people who are near and developing around, it's much, much better than it has been," Haas said. "We have a lot of work to do. This is one out of 14 beneficial use impairments that we are removing. So there are a number of other categories that need to be worked on in order to completely declare the river as clean."

Not only is the water cleaner, but it is safer, said presenters, with fewer disgusting materials floating along the banks and agreements to continue cleanup. Planning, Design and Implementation Director Katherine Winkler said the sun and warmth of summer will make some projects more obvious.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"We had to pull that all out," said Winkler, referring to invasive plants along the banks of the river. "So that's why this left us with this beautiful open area with these great sight lines into the river, and then we were able to pull the bank back, install turtle habitat area, terrace the land up, give it some more contours. Once we removed all the invasive vegetation, we actually went back and installed thousands of plants and trees and shrubs, native vegetation."

That is only going to be visible from the river because what Winkler calls the "Toe of Katherine Street" is a city-owned piece of river bank property land-locked behind private property.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper ecological planner Jo Johnson said there was paperwork to make this happen.

"To have the long-term control plan put in place with the Buffalo Sewer Authority because that will reduce the frequency and amount of combined sewage overflows that happens and then, another component of it is the Buffalo Green Code that was passed last year," said Johnson. "So that requires setbacks from the river so that there is a vegetative buffer in between new development and the river."

The public has enough confidence in the cleanup that more and more of them are living and playing on the riverbanks and many of them are in colorful kayaks or in the crew rowing shells on the river. Ohio Street and its continuing development along a rebuilt street has become emblematic of the city's revival.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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