Buffalo River Ecological Restoration Master Plan


The Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated the development of an Ecological Restoration Master Plan (ERMP) for the Buffalo River.  The Buffalo River ERMP is a visionary, stakeholder driven plan that incorporates regional needs with ecological protection and restoration opportunities.

Project Background:

The Buffalo River in western New York has played a vital role in the region’s economy for more than a century.  However, industrialization and the pressures of growing river communities have taken a toll on the river ecosystem.  In the 1980’s the Buffalo River was designated as a Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC). Although discharges from the oil refineries, steel mills, and chemical plants that occupy its shores have declined over the last several decades, the impacts of pollution and degraded habitats remain.  The primary issues affecting the Buffalo River today are impaired water quality, contaminated bottom sediments, inactive hazardous waste sites, point and nonpoint source pollution, combined sewer overflows, and fish and wildlife habitat loss and degradation.

Ecological restoration is defined by EPA as the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed. The Buffalo River ERMP represents a vision for the future that is built on ecological health and diversity and guided by community priorities which may include economic revitalization, recreational opportunities, land development, or greenspace preservation.

During the project kickoff meeting in June 2010, stakeholders contributed to the establishment of a Mission Statement:

To identify, prioritize, and facilitate opportunities to restore, protect and enhance habitat within the Buffalo River Habitat Corridor and its tributaries for a healthy and sustainable ecosystem that will benefit habitat, wildlife, corridor communities, and future generations.

A combination of Federal and non-Federal entities have contributed to developing in-depth understandings of the Buffalo River Project Area. The Federal agencies include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) and Region 2, and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Buffalo District.  Some of the non-Federal agencies and groups include Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (non-Federal project sponsor), New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), City of Buffalo, Buffalo State College (Great Lakes Center), Buffalo Sewer Authority, and the Western New York Stormwater Coalition.

Buffalo River ERMP Goals:

The primary goals of the Buffalo River ERMP are to:

  1. Protect water and habitat quality in the Buffalo River and its tributaries, and
  2. Assist efforts to eliminate three habitat-related Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs)
    • Degradation of benthos (plants and animals that inhabit the bottom of the river),
    • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat, and
    • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations

The Plan: How will the Plan Meet these Goals?

Through input from stakeholders throughout the project area, the ERMP will identify and define actions that can be taken at selected restoration sites to restore ecological function and habitat. Stakeholder participation will be an essential part of developing the plan. Stakeholders include the interested businesses, organizations, agencies, municipalities, and individuals that live and work in the Buffalo River project area. Stakeholder input regarding what restoration should “look like” within the project area will guide the process of identifying restoration targets.

Project Area:

The Buffalo River is located in western New York and flows from the east into Lake Erie, near the head of the Niagara River.  Although the Buffalo River is listed as an AOC, it is appropriate to consider the effects of the larger watershed on the AOC.  As such, the ERMP project area (see map) has been defined as the Buffalo River upstream from Lake Erie to the first year-round impassible barriers to fish movement on each of the three main tributaries: Cayuga Creek, Buffalo Creek, and Cazenovia Creek (about 37.2 river miles and approximately 43,800 acres).  These tributaries are recognized as potentially contributing to the historic and current condition of the Buffalo River.  The project area includes floodplains, wetlands, and other significant tracts of open space adjacent to the river.  For the purposes of providing a description of current conditions within the vicinities of each of the watercourses, a “focus area” has been developed that encompasses approximately 1,000 feet from near the middle of each waterway to inland parcels.  The ERMP focus area includes approximately 4,702 acres, or about 18% of the entire Buffalo River watershed.  The focus area includes comprises 500-foot buffers on either side of the river and creek channels (1000-foot corridor) for characterizing existing ecological and cultural resources.

Buffalo River AOC:

In 1987, the International Joint Commission identified the lower 6.2 miles of the Buffalo River as one of 43 “Areas of Concern” or AOCs. These hotspots represent the most severely degraded ecosystems in the Great Lakes basin. Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), this designation required the development of a Remedial Action Plan, or RAP.  In 1989, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) completed the RAP with assistance from the Buffalo River Citizen’s Committee.  The original goal of the RAP was to restore the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Buffalo River ecosystem in accordance with the GLWQA.

Between 1989 and 2003, NYSDEC issued six annual reports tracking the progress of the Buffalo River AOC.  In 2003, GLNPO selected Friends of the Buffalo River to take over as the RAP coordinator of the Buffalo River AOC.  In 2005, Friends of the Buffalo River became the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW).  The most recent status report on the Buffalo River AOC was published in 2008.  The Buffalo River ERMP project area includes the Buffalo River AOC.


Ecological Restoration Master Plan: