Jill Spisiak Jedlicka knows the future of Buffalo depends on the health of its waterways. As executive director of Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper, her mission is to protect the quality and quantity of water, and to ensure public access. Founded in 1989 as Friends of the Buffalo River, Riverkeeper is one of 200 water “keeper” organizations in the world.
Jedlicka, 38, is a native of Western New York. She studied environmental science and business at the University at Buffalo, but her interest in marine ecology may stem from her great-uncle Stanley Spisiak, a maverick in the local clean water movement.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which strengthened the federal government’s ability to control pollution.
This summer was a breakthrough season for waterfront activities throughout Buffalo-Niagara.
People Talk: How large is our collective waterfront?
Jill Spisiak Jedlicka: Including all the tributaries, we have over 3,500 miles of stream corridor or waterfront. That’s both sides of the streams.
PT: Tell me a lesser known fact about the Great Lakes.
JJ: Buffalo is one of a handful of cities in the country that has a western-facing waterfront view. To watch the sunset over the water is a key component to economic revitalization. Most cities do not, especially on the Great Lakes, where a lot of them face east.
PT: Is Riverkeeper considered a preservation group?
JJ: No, but a lot of people automatically assume we are a preservationist group. It depends on the issue. People also find our name misleading, too. They think we just do rivers. For us, we’re all about water. Our mission is very clear.
PT: How did you get into water-keeping?
JJ: It was kind of by accident. Every young environmentalist wants to save the world. They want to be a marine biologist or save the rain forest. At some point, the reality sets in that you can’t save the world, but you can save a small part. For me, it’s my hometown. My family says it’s in my blood.
PT: How so?
JJ: My great-uncle Stanley Spisiak was an environmentalist before the term was coined. As far back as the 1940s, he was chasing polluters on the river. He was roughed up and shot at. He invited Lady Bird Johnson to Western New York for a tour of the Buffalo River, and she brought her husband, the president. During the tour, they pulled up a bucket of sludge from the bottom of the river. “This is what your Army Corps of Engineers is dumping in the open lake,” my uncle told the president. Johnson’s famous reply was: “Those bastards.”
Two weeks later, President Johnson signed an executive order prohibiting open-lake dumping of contaminated dredge soils. That’s an executive order that exists to this day. I really didn’t know Uncle Stanley. He passed away in 1996.
PT: How bad was the Buffalo River?
JJ: In 1967, the Buffalo River was functionally considered dead by the federal government. It caught fire. Nothing lived in the river. There were no fish, no dissolved oxygen, not even the little blood worms that live in the bottom sediments. In the past eight years, it’s made significant progress. We’ve cobbled together more than $70 million for river revitalization.
PT: Where else can we see Riverkeeper’s work?
JJ: We’re also facilitating sewer pollution work, the Green Infrastructure Demonstration Projects in the Elmwood area. All the runoff funnels into Scajaquada Creek, where you get overflows just like you do down near Woodlawn. You’ll see the storm-water planters, the rain gardens and the new porous pavement on Claremont, Clarendon, Windsor, Parkdale and Elmwood. It allows the water to funnel right through.
PT: Where else are you surging?
JJ: Scajaquada Creek. It has really been an orphan stream for a long time, but it flows through two of our most important cultural gems – Delaware Park and Forest Lawn. It starts in Lancaster, flows through Cheektowaga, Depew and gets tunneled underground for three-and-a-half miles before popping back up in a forested area of Forest Lawn. Next year you’ll see the completion of the wells on the south end of Hoyt Lake. They will help improve the groundwater flow into Hoyt Lake.
Interestingly, there’s an aquifer underneath parts of Forest Lawn and Delaware Park. It was known historically as Jubilee Springs, and people from the city would get their drinking water from Jubilee Springs.
PT: Tell me about your concern for refugee fishermen.
JJ: Not only do they fish, but whatever they catch they consume. For us, that’s a concern because they’re catching and eating the most contaminated fish, the bottom feeders like carp and bullhead. They don’t think about the species. Carp can be a giant fish at 40 pounds. The refugee fishermen fry them up and feed them to their families. The fish are toxic. We’ve actually gone out with Jericho Road Ministries, hired translators and printed fish consumption advisories in five languages: French, Spanish, Nepali, Burmese and I believe Swahili. We also have one with no words for our illiterate community.
PT: How do you personally celebrate water?
JJ: I have my own rain barrel at my house where I disconnect the downspout to collect rainwater from my roof and use it to water my landscaping. Obviously this summer was challenging. I always get some kind of weird looks from my neighbors. My husband and our two boys are outdoors people. We canoe, kayak. My husband is a fly fisherman.
PT: Do members of your organization spend much time on the water?
JJ: Not as much as I’d like. We’re supposed to have a presence on the water and be very visible. I wish we had a boat that worked. We had engine problems this year, but we do have a fleet of 19 bright yellow kayaks.