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Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper brings home the money for our waterways

Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, Executive Director
Green River
Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper brings home the money for our waterways

It can be hard to know what to make of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. If you’ve seen one of their community volunteer efforts, like the Spring Shoreline Sweep that happens annually around Earth Day, they read like a good-natured and low tech civic group with a popular cause. The matching graphic tees, billowing trash bags, and enthusiastic cheerleading from the organization’s staff are evocative of the kind of youth group, church camp volunteerism that fuels smaller area concerns, like the Retree The District project organized by the University Heights Tool Library. It can be hard to reconcile this strictly feel-good image with the sophisticated fundraising machine one sees peeking out behind regular headlines announcing successful grant applications. Only this week, Riverkeeper have been awarded the first ever North American Riverprize for their work on the Buffalo River cleanup. In December, they were awarded $150,000 from the New York State Canal Corp. In November, $65,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The month before that, $300,000 from HSBC.

Although you may not know the group’s Executive Director, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, you have likely seen her in photos or video, standing beside Buffalo’s power players, from Byron Brown to Sean Ryan. Clearly, this is an organization which has transcended the futilities of small-fry conservationism. As Buffalo continues its march towards relevance and revitalization, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper has stepped onto the podium with the investors and policymakers who will be shaping the region’s future. They are billing themselves as a voice for caution and forethought, lest our current swell of development duplicate the mistakes which wrecked the Western New York ecosystem during the first half of the previous century.

Much of Riverkeeper’s clout comes from their unparalleled success working on the Buffalo River. For the less cartographically inclined, the very existence of the Buffalo River as a body of water distinct from the Lake Erie and Niagara River confluence can be surprising. With so many man made cuts and bluffs traversing variously public and private access points, Buffalo’s waterfront still exists for most residents as a series of disparate recreation destinations: the Naval Park, Harbor Center, and Silo City. The Buffalo River, which winds east inland, once snaked ponderously and amorphously through what was then marshland. As the city grew as an industrial power, manufacturing concerns bound the river’s pathway and lined its shores with factories and processing plants. Favoring growth and material prosperity over the as of yet unpopularized notion of sustainability, the river was used indiscriminately as a dumping ground for anything the area’s firms wished to dispose of.

One of the first Buffalo residents to publicly express outrage about the state of the river was Stan Spisiak, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka’s great-uncle. Spisiak is remembered as a legend among environmentalists for leveraging attention from a National Wildlife Foundation award into an on-the-water audience with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was so repulsed by a bucket of Buffalo River water presented to him by Spisiak that upon Johnson’s return to Washington, he signed an executive order prohibiting the dumping of polluted dredge spoils into Lake Erie. Although this attention to water quality issues in the region became an important catalyst for long term change, it did little in the short term to reanimate the Buffalo River, which was pronounced “dead” in 1969.

Spisiak Jedlicka never knew her great-uncle. It wasn’t until late in her undergraduate major in Environmental Studies at UB that she became aware of her uncle’s legacy. Nevertheless, it somehow feels appropriate that Spisiak Jedlicka became responsible for managing the cleanup of a river whose pollution had been a consuming concern for her ancestor. Spisiak Jedlicka began at Riverkeeper as a volunteer board member in 2000, when the group was known as the Friends of the Buffalo River. After taking maternity leave from her job at the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, she was offered a part-time position with the Friends as a coordinator of the cleanup. Spisiak Jedlicka accepted the post because it allowed her to split time between her young children and her passion for environmental conservation, but the work quickly grew in scope. Between Riverkeeper becoming the first not-for-profit to assume responsibility for an Environmental Protection Agency Remedial Action Plan in 2003 and the launch of the first round of contaminated sediment removal in 2011, Spisiak Jedlicka’s role in the group grew along with the breadth of the cleanup project. “The first couple of years were spent going out into the community and speaking with people to learn about their ideas for the future of the Buffalo River,” she recalls. She says that by “understanding what individuals, companies and government wanted to set as their vision,” Riverkeeper was able to “become successful in securing the partnerships and projects that had to be implemented to test the water, test the sediment, do the analysis, and all the other work that needed to be done leading to the clean up.” Her part time work soon became three-quarters time, and then full time. She laughs that once she became Executive Director, “it was no longer a job; it was a lifestyle.”

Talking with Spisiak Jedlicka in Riverkeeper’s offices on the 700 block of Main Street, I feet almost overwhelmed by her energy. Although she is quick to make a joke, she also strikes me as grueling competent at her job. In a city of break-room urban planning experts and backyard-barbecue would-be politicians, it is startling to be confronted with the breadth of fluidly on-message expertise casually wielded by Spisiak Jedlicka in our conversation. As preparation for the interview, I had combed through Riverkeeper’s press releases and news spots and had noted how infrequently Spisiak Jedlicka’s name appeared alone in an article. I quickly understood why: in answering nearly all of my questions, she first highlighted the role of other organizations and Riverkeeper staff members in the topics we were discussing. Before we can get to her work as coordinator of the Buffalo River cleanup, she mentions the participation of community members, the contributions of past staffers, the work of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, and the importance of the role played by the City of Buffalo. It didn’t feel to me like she was simply doing lip service to business partners; rather, it was impossible to talk about how the cleanup had become a reality without invoking those who had made it happen.

Spisiak Jedlicka claimed to me that she finds her occasional contributions as a televised talking head stressful because she believes that it is difficult to succinctly summarize the complexities of environmental preservation issues in acceptably sound-bite ready packaging. By the end of our talk, I was feeling suspicious of this claim. She has an impressive talent for tactfully deploying the facts. As we discussed Riverkeeper’s advisory role in policy and planning creation within the Buffalo Sewer Authority, she helpfully explained the differences between “grey”--more pipes and bigger storage tanks--and “green” infrastructure. She cites Riverkeeper’s recently launched Rain Barrel program as an example of this green infrastructure, describing how by collecting excess rainwater before it hits stormwater drains, it can be reused without absorbing harmful pollutants on its journey to and through the sewer system. By the time she fills me in on the BSA’s eventual $92 million commitment to green infrastructure, I am feeling I know what that means and why it might benefit the city.

Another thing Spisiak Jedlicka was careful to fill me in on was the concept of leveraging funds. There’s a lot of danger for a not-for-profit in being seeing as financially successful, especially when your not-for-profit’s line of work regularly rubs elbows with big business and government. The way Spisiak Jedlicka tells it, success for Riverkeeper has meant success for the Buffalo-Niagara Region. She says that money coming into Riverkeeper from its many grants and prizes is readily “turned around and pushed back into the community, funding the private sector and other non-profits.” Additionally, funding on a local level attracts additional money to the area: “It helps bring in outside resources to the region. Whether it’s foundations, or granting agencies, or private investment, our goal is to try to get as many resources as we can for our community and for our water, and the way you do that is to be on a national profile.”

It definitely seems that Riverkeeper is making good use of their money. Their offices are tastefully appointed and thoughtfully laid out, but they are are far from extravagant. Spisiak Jedlicka’s private office is tiny, and while I was visiting, a cluster of volunteers was sharing a community work space. Spisiak Jedlicka repeatedly mentioned the long hours put in by her staff, and another Riverkeeper employee made a point of citing the group’s reliance on volunteer labor. The thing that struck me most about by my time in the Riverkeeper offices was the relationship between Spisiak Jedlicka and the other staffers. Instead of coming off as an unapproachable boss figure amongst her grovelling minions, it looked to me like this was a team of people who are used to getting their hands dirty, together. I believed Spisiak Jedlicka when she told me: “I can go from doing a press event with a Congressman, to coming back to the office and having to take out the garbage.”

If grant allocations are a fuel for changes in the health of the area’s ecosystem, the dedication and selflessness of the Riverkeeper staff are ensuring that this fuel is burned efficiently and in the pursuit of effective projects. Perhaps most tellingly, when I asked Spisiak Jedlicka about what a dream scenario would be for Riverkeeper, she didn’t mention funding, but rather advocated for her group’s obsolescence: “[I’d want] a paradigm shift in the consciousness of society, so we no longer have to be there advocating why clean water is important.”

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