Niagara River

It is the neck through which 4 of the 5 Great Lakes drain. It is a national border. It is a mighty, rushing strait with spectacular Falls. It is an internationally esteemed bird migration corridor. It is a renowned fishery. In the scope of history, it is a young river scourged by the latest ice age 12,000 years ago. It is the Niagara River.

A short video has been produced by Jay Burney on the Habitat of the Niagara River.

Physical Character

The Niagara River is a 37-mile strait connecting Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, with an average flow of 212,000 cubic feet per second at Buffalo. As the last glaciers retreated, it became the principal drainage of Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, and Erie, almost 20% of the world’s available freshwater. Under the relentless, monumental force of falling water, the Falls gnawed its way through the ancient Niagara Escarpment and eroded upriver 7 miles in the last 12,000 years. This wonder of the world accounts for 160 feet of the 323-foot drop between the four inland Lakes and Lake Ontario. The river varies widely in depth, from an average of 20 feet in the branches around Grand Island to soundings of 190 feet in the upper gorge.

In New York state, the Niagara River watershed is 1225 square miles with 7 major tributaries, including Tonawanda Creek, Buffalo River, Smokes Creek, Scajaquada Creek, Cayuga Creek, Gill Creek, Fish Creek, and Two Mile Creek. The falls divide the river into two different ecosystems. Historically, the Upper Niagara was lined by marshes that provided feeding, breeding, and resting areas for abundant array of resident and migrating animals. Over 80 species of fish have been recorded, and the Niagara River continues to be a popular fishing hotspot. The Niagara Gorge and Lower River cradle a cornucopia of flora and fauna that thrive in the unique, varied conditions of the gorge.

A number of islands dot the length of the Niagara River, including Squaw, Strawberry, Motor, Rattlesnake, Grand, Goat, and Navy Islands, as well as a number of smaller islands. Many of them have fascinating, or sad, histories. Bird Island, originally at the head of the river, was demolished and used to build the Bird Island Pier walkway. Black Rock, a natural landmark of the river, was also blasted to make way for the Erie Canal. The Buffalo Sewer Authority now occupies most of Squaw Island. Strawberry Island, originally almost 200 acres is now approximately 5 acres due to sand and gravel mining. It is also the site of an extensive habitat restoration and bank stabilization project. Navy Island narrowly escaped being the world headquarters for the United Nations. Now, Navy Island is a beautiful Canadian park with a pair of nesting bald eagles.


Development and industry in the past several hundred years have severely altered the habitat and water quality in the Niagara River. Over 60% of the shoreline is lined with sheet metal or rock boulders that are difficult and dangerous to traverse for both people and animals. Habitat and fish populations are severely degraded by the New York Hydropower project due to widely fluctuating water levels. Also, the Falls are at one quarter to one half of their original glory because so much water is diverted for hydroelectricity. Public access is a major issue on the Niagara River. The I-190, which runs parallel to the river on the old Erie Canal bed, severs the community from the waterfront. Similarly, in Niagara County, the Robert Moses Parkway is an asphalt barrier to the river and an underused, unwanted feature of the breathtaking Niagara Escarpment.

Chemical contamination from PCBs, mirex, chlordane, PAHs, dioxin, and pesticideshas listed the Niagara River as an Area of Concern by the International Joint Commission, a regulatory agency of U.S.-Canada shared waters. Fish consumption advisories exist for many fish in the upper and lower Niagara River. See the Department of Health’s 2007-2008 publication of Chemicals in Sportfish and Game for more information.

The river is also afflicted by sewer overflows and stormwater runoff. Sewage and stormwater raise bacteria levels in the river and elevate levels of phosphates and nitrates, nutrients which can cause algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen. In Buffalo and Niagara Falls, sewer overflows occur as a result of the city’s combined sewer system, in which wastewater and stormwater are sent to the treatment plant in the same system of pipes. Whenever it rains, the surge in stormwater overwhelms the system, causing overflows into waterways to prevent sewage backups at the treatment plant and homeowners’ basements. In the suburbs, stormwater and wastewater are in separate pipes, but breakages or leaks in sewage pipes result in raw sewage frequently seeping into waterways. In addition, the river is affected by pollution from its tributaries, including sewage and sediment from Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek, and Tonawanda Creek.

Community Capacity

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper is a warrior for the Niagara River. Waterkeeper monitors water quality at 11 locations along the Niagara River and organizes shoreline cleanups at over 50 locations along the river twice a year.

In addition, over 100 volunteer Riverwatch captains vigilantly monitor the mainstem River for problems. In addition to Waterkeeper, the Buffalo-Niagara region boasts at least 75 outdoor/sportsmen organizations involved in environmental education and conservation as well as almost 60 “environmental” organizations. Schools are actively involved in river stewardship and cleanup. Buffalo State College operates a Great Lakes Center and a Maritime Center devoted to student education and research. Many area schools and colleges participate in Waterkeeper’s autumn and spring shoreline cleanups.

Ongoing and pending projects on the Niagara River are bringing millions and millions of dollars to the region. The Niagara Power Project Relicensing agreement is devoting $113 million a year to habitat projects. The Niagara River Greenway plan will bring $8 million a year for waterfront parks and recreation. $500 million is earmarked for contaminated sediment remediation, and 2300 acres at 57 sites are ripe for brownfield redevelopment.  You can be a warrior for the Niagara River, too! Join Waterkeeper to support our work. Volunteer at a shoreline cleanup or become a Riverwatch captain! Every resident in the watershed can help restore and protect the river.