Margaux Valenti
716.852.7483, ext. 28

In 1987, the International Joint Commission designated the Buffalo River as an “Area of Concern” or one of the 43 most toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes.

The Buffalo River “Area of Concern” extends from the mouth of the Buffalo River to the farthest point upstream at which the backwater condition exists during Lake Erie’s highest monthly average lake level.  This area is 6.2 miles long but also includes the City Ship Canal.  The land adjacent to the AOC is primarily industrial and residential and has historically been characterized by heavy industrial activity.


The City Ship Canal is 1.4 miles long and a portion is considered a federal navigation channel.  It has been suggested that the Canal is home to some of the worst contaminated sediments within the AOC.

As required under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, all “Areas of Concern,” or AOC’s, were required to complete a Remedial Action Plan, or RAP.  The Buffalo River RAP was completed in 1989 by NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) in partnership with a local citizen’s advisory committee.  The combined Stage 1 and Stage 2 RAP included a remediation strategy of stream water quality monitoring, contaminated bottom sediment assessment and action determination, inactive hazardous waste site remediation, point and nonpoint source discharge evaluation, combined sewer overflow assessment, remedial measure implementation monitoring, fish and wildlife beneficial use restoration, and habitat protection.

Between 1989 and 2003, NYSDEC coordinated the Buffalo River Remedial Action Plan process. In October 2003, the USEPA Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) selected Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers (FBNR) to take over coordination of the RAP.  (FBNR changed its name in July 2005 and is now known as Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper).  With the assistance of the Remedial Advisory Committee (RAC), NYSDEC, and over 30 other governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations, Waterkeeper is working towards the goal of delisting the Buffalo River as an Area of Concern.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) lists “Beneficial Use Impairments” as “changes in the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes System that create barriers to the use of the water resource.”  These use impairments have become the template for determining the extent to which the river is degraded and for measuring progress toward its clean up.  Once a beneficial use has been restored, it can be “delisted” using the IJC’s criteria.

In December 2001, the US Policy Committee published “Restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern – Delisting Principles and Guidelines.”  These guidelines allow for the delisting of individual use impairments in the entire AOC under the following circumstances:

  • When locally derived delisting criteria have been met;
  • When the use impairment is due to natural rather than man-made causes;
  • When the use impairment is not limited geographically to the AOC, but rather is typical of regional conditions;
  • When the source of the use impairment is outside the boundaries of the AOC; or
  • When the beneficial use can not be fully restored, even when all practical remedial actions have been implemented.

The following tables summarize the Beneficial Use Impairments of the Buffalo River AOC, as well as identifies the known (or suspected) causes of the impairment, and the criteria that need to be meet to delist.


Beneficial Use Impairment Indicator2014 StatusKnown or Likely Cause of ImpairmentDelisting Criteria
1. Restrictions on Fish & Wildlife ConsumptionImpairedPCB’s and Chlordane in sediments.1) There are no AOC-specific fish and wildlife consumption advisories by New York State (e.g. carp for PCBs)
2. Tainting of Fish & Wildlife FlavorImpairedPhenolic compounds and Chlorobenzenes.1) No exceedances of water quality standards within the AOC (6NYCRR Part 703.5) for compounds (Phenolic compounds and Chlorobenzenes) associated with tainting.
3. Degradation of Fish & Wildlife PopulationsImpairedLow dissolved oxygen, river channelization, and contaminated sediments.1) BUI #5 (Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems), BUI #6 (Degradation of Benthos), and BUI #14 (Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat), are removed or in recovery; AND
2) Fish surveys find that the resident fish community is “fair” to “good” based on applicable fish community biological indices (IBI); AND
3) Wildlife surveys confirm the presence of healthy and reproducing indigenous populations in the AOC.
4. Fish Tumors and Other DeformitiesImpairedContaminated sediments and navigational dredging.1) Analysis shows that the prevalence of neoplastic liver tumors found in Brown Bullheads, within the AOC, is not significantly higher than those found within a designated comparable control site.
5. Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive ProblemsImpairedPCBs, DDT, and metabolites in sediments.1) Deformities or reproductive problem rates are not statistically different from inland background levels as reported by wildlife officials or trained observers conducting the tree swallow, mink, and wildlife surveys within the AOC; AND
2) Whole body tissue concentrations of contaminants of concern in small mid-trophic level prey fish identified in the AOC are not statistically different than Lake Erie.
6. Degradation of BenthosImpairedContaminated sediments and navigational dredging.1) Benthic macroinvertebrate communities are non-impacted or slightly impacted according to NYSDEC indices; AND
2) In the absence of conclusive community structure data, the toxicity of sediment-associated contaminants is not statistically higher than controls.
7. Restrictions on DredgingImpairedVarious contaminants in sediments.1) There are no restrictions on routine commercial or recreational navigation dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) or another entity across any part of the AOC, such that no special management measures or use of a confined disposal facility are required for the dredged material due to chemical contamination.
8. Eutrophication or Undesirable AlgaeNot ImpairedNone
9. Restrictions on Drinking WaterNot ApplicableNot Applicable
10. Beach ClosingsNot ApplicableNot Applicable
11. Degradation of AestheticsImpairedFloatables, debris and foul odor from CSOs and upper watershed.1) Minimize debris, general litter, floatables, or biological and chemical contaminants in the river through the signing of the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s Long Term Control Plan and the application of Best Management Practices through the enactment of the City of Buffalo Green Code.
12. Added Cost to AgricultureNot ImpairedNone
13. Degradation of Phytoplankton or Zooplankton PopulationsNot ImpairedNone
14. Loss of Fish & Wildlife HabitatImpairedPhysical disturbance such as bulk heading, dredging and steep slopes, and lack of suitable substrate. 1) Restore Habitat Connectivity; AND
a.) Enact the City of Buffalo’s new unified development ordinance, the City of Buffalo Green Code, which contains explicit zoning provisions imposing a
minimum 100-foot development setback and a 50-foot vegetative buffer (§ 5.5.3.A.5. C-W-100 Standards).
b) Implement the Buffalo River Habitat Action Plan (2013).
2) Improve Water Quality
a) Major anthropogenic causes of low dissolved oxygen, including navigational dredging and combined sewer overflows
(CSOs), are not a limiting factor for supporting aquatic life.

Click here to see Bacteriological Sampling Data for the Buffalo River Watershed

Buffalo River AOC: A Monitoring Plan for the Delisting of “Impaired” Beneficial Use Impairments

In 2013-2014, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper assumed the task of developing a Monitoring Plan for the 8 of the 9 “Impaired” Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) in the Buffalo River Area of Concern (AOC).  This Plan outlines the sampling efforts needed to redesignate the Buffalo River AOC. This report should be seen as a “living document” which needs to be reviewed and updated periodically to reflect any new projects or data acquired in the Buffalo River AOC.

Monitoring Protocol 

Please click the links below for more information on the Buffalo River AOC

Issues Affecting the AOC Buffalo River Restoration Projects Technical Documents