How Buffalo resurrected its river

Why We Wrote This

It can be hard to find hope in sludge. But activist citizens in one of America’s most hard-luck cities never gave up on their polluted river – and now the cleaned-up water is one of Buffalo’s biggest attractions.

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper leads kayakers on a June tour of the Buffalo River in Buffalo, N.Y. This once-polluted river has become a popular destination for recreational boaters.

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If American rivers had ever been voted on, yearbook-style, the Buffalo River could easily have been brutally named Ugliest, or Most Likely to Die Young. Thanks to local resident champions, who collaborated with industry, government, and environmental groups, the Buffalo River gradually went from being considered a lost cause to a place worth fighting for. The river’s fate started shifting in the 1960s, largely thanks to the efforts of one man. Stanley Spisiak was a jeweler by day, but by evening he was the kind of guy who'd chase down dumpers he spotted on the river. Decades later, his great-grandniece Jill Spisiak Jedlicka has taken up the charge as director of the river’s protector organization, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. With help from like-minded residents, cooperative industry partners, and supportive government programs, Ms. Jedlicka has watched the Buffalo come back to life. “In the summer there are traffic jams with all the different kinds of boats on the river,” Jedlicka says, still sounding amazed. “These are good problems to have. Even five years ago, we were the only crazy ones out here.”

Shielded by wraparound sunglasses and a windbreaker against a gusty fall day, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka strides across a lawn toward New York’s Buffalo River.

The grass is part of a fresh public space called Buffalo River Fest Park. Ms. Jedlicka, executive director of the nonprofit Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, looks around with justifiable pride. Volunteers she and other community leaders directed have planted basswood trees and dogwood shrubs along the shore.

Across the water stands a group of silos turned into a new recreation complex named RiverWorks – complete with waterside seating, docked tiki boats, and a zipline strung above. The scent of Lucky Charms, produced by General Mills along the river, suffuses the air. Signs advertise a brewery called Resurgence and a big regatta, both coming to the riverfront soon.

“In the summer there are traffic jams with all the different kinds of boats on the river,” Jedlicka says, still sounding amazed. “These are good problems to have. Even five years ago, we were the only crazy ones out here.”

If American waterways had ever been voted on, yearbook-style, the Buffalo River could easily have been brutally named Ugliest, or Most Likely to Die Young. It took decades for public perception of the river to shift. But thanks to local resident champions, who collaborated with industry, government, and environmental groups, the Buffalo River gradually went from being considered a lost cause to a place worth fighting for.

Degraded urban rivers are hardly uncommon in America, and neither is industrial infrastructure along them. Still, the Buffalo River was uniquely repellent. An 8-mile water-snake feeding into Lake Erie, the river was once a wetland. To feed industry, it was channeled into the western end of the Erie Canal, then lined with grain elevators, flour mills, malt houses, chemical plants – and everything they dumped into the water.

By the 1970s, the river was pinpointed as one of the worst sources of pollution pouring into the Great Lakes. The Buffalo River had caught fire multiple times, even if the larger world hadn’t noticed. The surface had an oily sheen, and any fish caught there were liable to have tumors.

“Oh my God, it was gross,” says Lynda Schneekloth, professor emerita of landscape architecture at The State University of New York at Buffalo. “Cars, dead animals, shopping carts – we actually pulled those things out. It was so bad, if you fell in the river you were supposed to go get a tetanus shot.”

‘Mr. Buffalo River’

The waterway’s fate started shifting in the ‘60s. Stanley Spisiak was a local Polish-American jeweler by day, but by evening he was the kind of guy who’d chase down dumpers he spotted on the Buffalo River. (After being shot at, he took to carrying a pistol.)

Mr. Spisiak got involved with efforts to protect Lake Erie and New York rivers, testified in Albany, and by 1966 found himself winning the National Wildlife Federation’s “Water Conservationist of the Year” award. Seated by Lady Bird Johnson at the dinner, he invited her to visit – and bring her husband.

The Johnsons motored along on a Coast Guard cutter, and Spisiak hauled up a bucketful of river sludge for then-President Lyndon Johnson to smell. There’s a famous black-and-white of LBJ staring into the bucket, repulsed. Two weeks later, he signed an executive order banning polluted dredged sediment from being put in Lake Erie.

David Duprey/AP
Grain elevators line the Buffalo River in Buffalo, N.Y., Feb. 27, 2012. Many of the grain silos that dot the Buffalo riverbanks are abandoned.

Spisiak got a nickname: “Mr. Buffalo River.” But there was only so much he could do – the river was still declared biologically dead in 1969.

Jill Spisiak Jedlicka is his great-grandniece. She picks up where he left off by directing the river’s protector organization, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. Professor Schneekloth and seven friends founded the organization as an all-volunteer nonprofit in 1989, after organizing the first river cleanup that year. Today the group employs 27 full-time workers and has helped oversee the Buffalo River’s $100 million restoration.

Even the most ardent environmentalists couldn’t make the area pristine again (it’d been a wetland, after all), but they at least wanted the human animal to be able to enjoy it. Schneekloth, Jedlicka, and their counterparts first had to get people believing the water had potential. That took time, even for residents who were inclined to want to better the neighborhood.

Margaret “Peg” Overdorf had grown up just blocks from the water in the ‘50s, and while she didn’t swim in it, she remembers friends jumping in from the grain elevators. “It was murky and contaminated,” she says. “It was broken-down fences and old industrial sites.”

Later she became executive director of the neighborhood’s Valley Community Association. Decades after she’d avoided swimming there, “I started to realize the Buffalo River is a jewel,” she says. Wanting to build a new park on one overgrown field there, she wrote 17 grants totaling $5.4 million. River Fest Park opened in 2011. A community center sits close to it, and students use the river as an outdoor classroom, learning things like how to monitor water quality.

First, though, leaders had to find funding for a massive river cleanup. Not easy when even the industry along it had cut and run – there was nobody even left to sue. The Buffalo River had come to symbolize the city’s lost power. It was still lined with 175-foot concrete grain silos. General Mills still made cereal in one, and Honeywell researched refrigerants and blowing agents for foam insulation in another. Virtually all the rest were abandoned.

Schneekloth and Waterkeeper’s co-founders advocated for the towers as architecturally significant. At the same time, they pushed to rehab the river via community meetings, sediment sampling, and other technical assessment, and remediation measures like dredging. The Environmental Protection Agency chose Waterkeeper to manage the river’s official remedial action plan. From 2013 through 2016, the waterway was finally dredged to take out toxic hotspots.

General Mills was not considered a major polluter, but Honeywell was an environmental concern. One of its predecessor companies, Allied, had produced dye along the river. Although the company sold that plant in the ‘70s, the business it sold to went bankrupt, so liability reverted to Honeywell, which had held onto its research lab on the same site anyway.

Rather than wait to be sued, Honeywell voluntarily joined the cleanup plan through the Great Lakes National Program Office. The voluntary nature of the program engendered a cooperative rather than adversarial process, says global remediation director John Morris, who oversaw the $24 million corporate contribution to the Buffalo River project. (Honeywell recouped a portion of that money from other companies that had historically polluted the river, although Mr. Morris declined to disclose the amount.)

“The advantage of being proactive is that there is less uncertainty, and you resolve your liability much sooner. As a company that has quite a bit of industrial history going back to the 19th century, we have our share of sites that need attention,” Morris says. He calls the cleanup through the Great Lakes National Program Office “the fairest program we’ve had an opportunity to participate in.”

An ongoing effort

The Buffalo River’s water quality is an ongoing issue, as sewage can overflow into the river after storms. Habitat restoration continues as well; fish and plantings will be sampled in 2020 to measure how well it’s gone. Still, the results have been impressive enough that in 2015 the river cleanup project won the first-ever North American Riverprize from the International RiverFoundation.

Just a few years later, the Buffalo River now hosts paddleboarding, kayaking, breweries, distilleries, history tours, ice rinks, beehives, art installations, and even weddings.

Doug Swift is a local developer who invested $30 million in that first recreation complex across from the park, RiverWorks. As a teenager, Mr. Swift had water skied on the Buffalo River when Lake Erie was too choppy. He jokes that whatever was polluting the water didn’t stunt his growth (he’s 6’5).

Still, Swift acknowledges that RiverWorks wouldn’t draw the more than 1 million people he projects it will have by the end of 2018 if the river hadn’t been cleaned up. While an architecture student at SUNY Buffalo, Swift had studied with Schneekloth and her husband, architecture and planning dean Bob Shibley, who helped inspire him with their new vision for the waterfront. Thanks to farsighted citizens like them, Spisiak, and Jedlicka, that vision has now come to life in a way that the larger world never expected.

“Most people wouldn’t have really felt comfortable if the water was the way it always was. Not to say it’s perfect now, but they’ve gotten the worst of it out,” Swift says. “The river generated the wealth that made Buffalo successful 150 years ago, and now it’s the center of its new economy, entertainment and tourism.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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