Jill Jedlicka is leading the way as her region recovers from the toxic legacy of its industrial past and builds a thriving water-based economy.
By Lisa W. Foderaro.
Photos by ©Mark Schäfer, courtesy of Culture Trip.
It is a raw, blustery afternoon in downtown Buffalo, the winds so strong that Lake Erie looks more like an ocean as waves crash over a break wall snaking across the Outer Harbor. But Jill Jedlicka, the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, is undeterred, steering her Subaru Outback past some of the successes from the last decade that have transformed the Buffalo waterfront from an exploited eyesore into a regional draw.
There is Canalside, the renovated inner harbor where the Buffalo River flows toward Lake Erie and where, on weekends, families descend on new cafes, museums and boat tours. Just south is Buffalo RiverWorks, a grain elevator that was repurposed into a sports-and-entertainment complex (and painted to resemble a giant six-pack of beer). Then there are more tranquil spots. Perhaps Jill’s favorite is Red Jacket Park, a few bends in the river to the east, where a wetland restoration was one of the first projects she undertook as a young environmentalist in county government. “Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper has helped lead so much of this community’s revival for decades,” Jill says, proudly. “And that’s involved everything from re-imagining our waterfront to advocating for the federal and state investments that have made reconnecting to it possible.”
As if on cue, a great blue heron lifts off from a diaphanous patch of lily pads. “One area where I think Waterkeeper has led is in giving people hope for a future in which this river does not have to be a toxic mess for the next generation, that it can be a healthy, thriving waterfront again,” she says, watching the heron pump its wings toward the opposite shore. “Saying that over and over again — and getting people to believe it — is just as important as all the technical work that gets done.”
At 44, Jill oversees one of the largest Waterkeeper organizations in the world, with an annual budget of $8 million and two dozen staff members. Together, they are relentless advocates for the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers, as well as two Great Lakes and 15 major tributaries. Restored shorelines and new docks for kayaks and paddleboards may be the most visible manifestation of an environmental turnaround that The Buffalo News dubbed “almost miraculous.” But much of the most critical work has taken place out of the public eye: beneath the rivers’ surface and in countless meetings across decades among elected officials, governing agencies, corporate leaders and, of course, Waterkeeper.
In the mid-2000s, the federal government gave Friends of the Buffalo River (Waterkeeper’s predecessor, founded in 1989) the task of coordinating the cleanup and restoration activity on the Buffalo River. As a way to jump-start the remediation, the group signed a $2 million cost-sharing agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers to pay for a study of contaminated sediment on the river bottom. “I laugh because at the time we didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” recalls Jill, who was working with the Friends group at the time.
But she and her colleagues, frustrated by the slow pace of progress, wanted to make a statement. After all, in the 1980s the International Joint Commission, an organization established by the United States and Canada, had designated the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers so-called “Areas of Concern” in the Great Lakes basin, two of more than two dozen toxic hot spots on the American side of the border. Those designations followed another dubious distinction: the Buffalo River was considered biologically dead as far back as the 1960s. The industrial activity that had emerged alongside the Erie Canal and powered Buffalo’s economy had also scarred the rivers so vital to its success.
“I went to block parties, churches and festivals, and ultimately people said they wanted to be able to swim in the river and eat the fish. It’s pretty simple. You don’t pull $100 million together overnight. But it all started with really engaging the community.”
After Friends of the Buffalo River signed the agreement with the Army Corps, their persistent efforts helped convince the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to cover the local share of the study, though the Friends group did provide in-kind services and remained an active partner. “Part of our strategy was to get others to the table,” Jill explains. “It worked.”
The analysis of more than 1,000 core samples of Buffalo River sediment led to the successful dredging of a million cubic yards of contaminated muck along a six-mile stretch. The work was finally completed a few years ago. “We had a whole stew of things, but there were four chemical drivers — PCBs, lead, mercury and PAHs,” or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a group of potentially carcinogenic pollutants, Jill says. “We found contamination 20 feet down.”
For Jill, who grew up outside Buffalo in the town of Lancaster, a passion for the environment in general, and the region’s watershed in particular, is practically a family inheritance. Her great-uncle on her father’s side, Stanley Spisiak, owned a jewelry store, but was nicknamed “Mr. Buffalo River” for his crusading advocacy. In the 1960s, he coaxed then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy and later President Lyndon B. Johnson to visit the Buffalo River and neighboring waterways. The tour prompted Johnson to issue an order halting the discharge of dredge spoils into Lake Erie.
Although Jill never met her great-uncle, owing to the sprawling nature of her family, she developed an appreciation of his work as she pursued a career in the environment. Spisiak was her maiden name, and so professors at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she majored in environmental studies, asked if they were related, as did the first person to interview her for a job.
“The era when he lived and was doing this kind of work — I mean, people were literally trying to kill him,” she says, referring to his activism beginning in the 1940s. “The stories we’ve heard were about when he was testifying about different kinds of pollution happening at Bethlehem Steel. He was thrown down the stairs and beat up and shot at in his jewelry store. He was an environmentalist before the term was coined.”
As Jill tells it, she grew up in a tight-knit family that valued hard work. Her parents were not outdoorsy — the closest they got to nature was the golf course — but they encouraged her interest. “Even as a little girl, I was outside all the time, playing in the woods, playing in the streams near our house,” she recalls. “I used to catch tadpoles and toads, and I would take them home and build little homes for them.”
It was not until high school that her love of the natural world morphed into something resembling a vocation. In her sophomore year, her public high school chose Jill to participate in a leadership conference in Seattle and Portland. She was bowled over by the grandeur. “I remember seeing how beautiful the landscape was out there,” she says, “and that was the moment when I realized you have to speak up for things you believe in.”
She came home and set to work starting a recycling program in her school. It was the early 1990s, long before such programs were commonplace. After graduating from SUNY Buffalo, she struggled to find a job in her chosen field, largely because of budget cuts amid a recession. So she took a position as a program director at a local Y.M.C.A., where she met her husband. She also decided to go back to school for an M.B.A., attending classes at night. Then came her break — a job with Erie County as an environmental education specialist. Her first assignment: community engagement and habitat restoration along the Buffalo River.
After five years with the county, the move to Friends of the Buffalo River, where she had served on the board, was natural. She had just finished a maternity leave and took a part-time position there as a consultant. The group broadened its focus over the years, becoming Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers in 2003, then Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper in 2005 and, finally, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper in 2017.
Over the years, both in her role with the county and at Waterkeeper, Jill has focused on building relationships. She points out that Buffalo, in addition to its moniker of the Queen City of the Lakes (for its industrial might in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), is known as the “City of Good Neighbors.” “It’s a small town and everybody knows each other,” she says. “We’re all kind of in it together, so even as our jobs or roles change, you still have those networks and those connections.”
With the goal of harnessing as much goodwill as possible for the region’s waters, she makes a point of striking a nonpartisan tone while refraining from knee-jerk antagonism. Brian Higgins, a congressman who represents Buffalo, praises Jill’s advocacy. “She has an emotional intelligence and intuitiveness in dealing with politicians and corporate leaders,” he says, adding that her laser focus has contributed to Buffalo’s recent economic resurgence. “Waterfront development is not the entire renaissance, but it’s a big part of it.”
Indeed, Jill finds measured words even for a major polluter of the past generation, Honeywell. One piece of legislation that yielded significant funding was the Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2002, which provided a cost-sharing mechanism for corporations and government. (Another was the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which began in 2010.) She noted that the Legacy Act was invaluable for orphaned waterways like the Buffalo River, where scores of factories were shuttered long ago.
“Why should one company pay for the mess of a hundred companies?” she asks. “That’s not right. Honeywell was still working along the river and doing some cleanup. And they helped bring other responsible parties to the table on their own.”
All told, some $100 million has poured into the Buffalo River over the past 15 years from all levels of government, nonprofit groups and private industry. Most of the money went toward sediment removal, but about a quarter helped fund the creation of green infrastructure and public access, as well as habitat restoration. Jill believes that the time she and her team spent talking to residents about what they wanted from their river paid off.
“I don’t think anybody ever asked people in this region that question before,” she says. “I went to block parties, churches and festivals, and ultimately people said they wanted to be able to swim in the river and eat the fish. It’s pretty simple. You don’t pull $100 million together overnight. But it all started with really engaging the community.”
Despite the organization’s name, the Buffalo River, to date, has garnered more attention from Waterkeeper than the Niagara River. That’s partly because the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is overseeing efforts to deal with toxic sediment in the Niagara. And the river, an international waterway, benefits from New York’s strong relationship with Canada. Still, the group advises the state DEC on the cleanup, and is monitoring water quality and restoring habitat on the upper and lower Niagara River.
Along the Buffalo River, work to improve habitat across 17 sites is almost finished. “At one site, for the first time we actually saw a bunch of turtle eggs that had hatched,” Jill says. “We see belted kingfishers, herons and egrets. There’s a peregrine that nests nearby. You can physically see the greening of the shoreline.”
Two outstanding issues are combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and nonpoint source pollution. CSOs occur when wastewater treatment plants that process both stormwater and sewage are overwhelmed, resulting in the discharge of raw sewage into waterways. Non-point source pollution includes road runoff, pesticides, animal waste and litter — what Jill calls “all the stuff you cannot grasp.” The Buffalo Sewer Authority has committed a halfbillion dollars under a consent decree to staunch the overflows through a combination of gray infrastructure (holding tanks) and green infrastructure (bioswales, rain gardens, porous surfaces).
If there is one thing that nags at Jill, despite her organization’s extraordinary success, it is complacency. “The biggest challenge is to make sure that people don’t feel like the job is done,” she says, driving along the Outer Harbor. “It’s that apathy that allows people to repeat the past. We’re not going to get another $100 million to restore this river again.”
And partnerships, Jill points out, will remain key to the vitality of both Waterkeeper and the region’s rivers. Along a one-mile stretch of the Scajaquada Creek in Buffalo, for instance, Waterkeeper recently partnered with the Sewer Authority to complete a seven-year, $6 million restoration effort. This was a landmark achievement, Jill points out, because it was the first in-the-ground project for a creek that had a 100-year history of contamination.
“We saw trout spawn up that creek this past season,” she says. “It’s incremental and never quick enough for the people who are on the outside looking in. But we’re getting there.”
Lisa W. Foderaro was a staff reporter for The New York Times for more than 30 years and has also written for National Geographic, Audubon Magazine, and Adirondack Life.