‘Water will define our future’: How the Buffalo Blueway is connecting residents to the city’s rivers – Buffalo News

‘water-will-define-our-future’:-how-the-buffalo-blueway-is-connecting-residents-to-the-city’s-rivers-–-buffalo-news

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Kayaks, canoes and a motor boat meandered down the Buffalo River on a recent sunny day, passing the Archer Daniels Midland grain elevator that loomed large on one side of the river bank and passing Ohio Street's shoreline on the other, where a backhoe was moving boulders at a construction site. After years of industrial contamination, the river's rebirth has made activity on the waterway a common sight. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, which has led the decades-long clean-up effort, is now embarking on the Buffalo Blueway project to create or upgrade public access sites for paddle sports, anglers and others. The Ohio Street Boat Launch under construction is the fourth Blueway site and, at a cost of $2 million, the first created from scratch."There is so much activity on this water now that it's absolutely mind-boggling," said Katherine Winkler, Waterkeeper's senior program manager and the project manager for the Blueway sites. "To be able to bring people here is going to be absolutely incredible."

The Ohio Street Boat Launch on the Buffalo River is getting an overhaul by the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper as part of the organization's Buffalo Blueway effort to improve access to the Buffalo River for fishing, paddling and enjoying the views, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

Derek Gee / Buffalo News

Waterkeeper received $10 million to develop the Blueway from the state's Buffalo Billion II economic development program. Investing in the region's environmental and recreational assets was seen as an important way to spur economic activity."The grand vision is to really market Western New York as a Great Lakes region," said Jill Jedlicka, Waterkeeper's executive director.That is a challenge, Jedlicka said. The region has been cut off from its waterways and must combat the perception – "real and imagined," she said – that the river is contaminated and unhealthy.“New York’s $10 million investment to create a network of public access points along the waterways of Buffalo and Niagara is paying off," said Eric Gertler, Empire State Development's acting commissioner. "Just ask the kayakers, fishermen and hikers who are finding new ways to enjoy the water and surrounding areas."The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation gave $2.75 million to the Blueway, with Waterkeeper involved in the creation of a site at Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, formerly LaSalle Park.A river turnaroundWaterkeeper wanted to build public access connectivity along the river for years. But the organization knew it needed to wait until the river was healthier.There is still a long way to go. The Buffalo River was found to be the fifth unhealthiest river in New York State in an analysis conducted four years ago by the Natural Heritage Program of the State Department of Environmental Conservation.But the federal government's more than $50 million investment last decade to remove lead, mercury, PCBs and other poisons from the river continues to make a big difference. So has the removal of invasive plants from the river's banks – replaced by native trees and shrubs – and the boosting of fish habitats and small mammal nesting areas. The ongoing improvements allowed the organization to turn its attention to building the city's recreational economy and providing quality-of-life enhancements."Water is the reason why our economy developed here several hundred years ago," Jedlicka said. "Water defined our history, and water will define our future."

A trio of kayakers paddle in the Buffalo River near Canalside at sunset, Thursday, May 20, 2021. 

Derek Gee

Jedlicka said people don't have to fish or go boating to enjoy the emerging Blueway."You can be a birder who wants to watch wildlife," Jedlicka said. "You can just want to watch the sunset or sit in the park and watch the world go by. We want equitable access for so many parts of our community who have been cut off from their own waterfront for generations."Seeking accessThe Blueway's first three projects offered site enhancements, public access and signage to existing boat launches. The first was at Buffalo RiverWorks on Kelly Island, followed by Mutual Riverfront Park in the Old First Ward and Wilkeson Pointe on the Outer Harbor.Progress was slowed by the pandemic, but design work was able to be completed for the Ohio Street site and three new projects.At the Ohio Street Boat Launch, Winkler said, the arched, 77-foot long cantilevered fishing pier and overlook being built will be the first that's fully accessible and ADA-compliant on the river. A new paddle sport launch and wooden slide to help put boats into the water is also under construction, with debris reflectors being installed at the bottom of the launch to keep it from filling with detritus.A nearby area will have benches and replanted native wildflowers, trees, shrubs, meadow mix and grass. The site is owned by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is working with Waterkeeper on the project.  Local history is also being commemorated. Stamped railroad tracks on a sidewalk will signify that a rail line once went through the site. Four archways made from rail tracks and rail ties will also mark the site's past."It's really as much about making connections to the community, because the parks are as much for them as they are for the people who come in from the outside to launch their boats," Winkler said.      The target date for completion is late August."I grew up in Buffalo and I didn't come to the Buffalo River," Winkler said. "There was no reason to. Now, there is a reason to. There is freighter traffic that goes through here once a week. How often do you get to see that? Well, you can see that from this spot."

The foundation of a new accessible fishing pier at the Ohio Street Boat Launch on the Buffalo River, which is getting an overhaul by the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper as part of the organization's Buffalo Blueway effort to improve access to the Buffalo River for fishing, paddling and enjoying the views, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

Derek Gee / Buffalo News

Work is expected to begin at Erie County-owned Red Jacket Riverfront Natural Habitat Park farther upstream in September.A terraced step-stone paddle launch will replace a gravel slope to allow easier entry and departure for boats. There will be new benches, an improved parking area and concrete paths. The $250,000 project is expected to be completed in November.Waterkeeper is also designing an ADA-compliant paddle boat launch and fishing pier at Seneca Bluffs Natural Habitat Park, also owned by the county. A recent virtual public meeting explained that the plan received "very positive feedback," Winkler said.Construction on the $1.5 million project is expected to start in April 2022.Both parks offer the kind of naturally quiet upstream locations that Waterkeeper encourages to avoid conflicts with power boats, sailboats and the commercial boating traffic found in the lower river.County Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel said the Blueways aligned with the county's own plans for the parks."We fully anticipate an increase in park use as a destination to enjoy these areas on the Buffalo River," Schinzel said. There are also plans to improve waterway access at Higgins Park, at the juncture of Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek.

A shoreline stabilization area allows for access to the water and creates shallow water habitat for fish and aquatic wildlife at the Ohio Street Boat Launch on the Buffalo River is getting an overhaul by the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper as part of the organization's Buffalo Blueway effort to improve access to the Buffalo River for fishing, paddling and enjoying the views, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

Derek Gee / Buffalo News

The biggest project Waterkeeper is involved in is creating site and shoreline access for paddle craft and fishing at Centennial Park.The anticipated cost is $1.5 million, which includes engineering work to stabilize the compromised shoreline and an emphasis on building "living infrastructure" that benefits the waterway's ecology.The project at Centennial Park is expected to be completed by 2024. Waterkeeper is also looking during its current phase for sites upstream to connect into West Seneca. For Waterkeeper's second phase, the organization is hoping to develop public access in Lackawanna, the Tonawandas and Grand Island.  For now, the focus is on the new Ohio Street fishing pier and paddle sport launch.Winkler said it is going to be a special place."At night, when you're looking down at the city, it is just beautiful," she said.Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News. 

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