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Julie Barrett-O'Neill: Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper

Get to know a Buffalonian...

As executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper (, Julie Barrett-O’Neill wades knee-deep—or deeper—in the region’s water quality issues—from shoreline cleanups and combined sewer overflows to river-dredging and discharge permits. We asked her to tell us a little bit about her organization’s approach to these issues.

Some Riverkeeper outfits seem always to be suing someone—polluters, municipalities, regulatory agencies. The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper seems to be taking a different tact in pursuing its mission.

Waterkeeper Alliance programs (including Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper) make a commitment to use all the necessary tools to protect their waterways, including litigation when necessary (and we have). Litigation is a time-consuming, expensive, and often divisive tool that needs to be used very strategically. In the last few years, we’ve been very successful in dealing with many long-standing, local pollution challenges by working collaboratively with potential adversaries. Of course, in entering those situations, we are careful to know the legal framework we are working in and are careful to protect our legal standing in the event our proactive efforts fall through.

What do you believe are the biggest threats to the region’s water quality?

We have past, present and future threats. We inherited historic industrial pollution located in the bottom of the Buffalo River, hazardous waste sites, and brownfields. The biggest current threat to water quality is the urban runoff/sewer overflows/septic failure trifecta. Looking to the future, climate change is predicted to reduce Great Lakes water levels concentrating pollution in our local waterways.

What should we be doing about those threats?

First, lets pause for a moment to thank our lucky stars that we live on the Great Lakes! Then, once we are basking in that cool, fresh realization, let’s use it as motivation to protect our water through simple steps. Every one of us can conserve water, disconnect our gutters from the sewer system, avoid toxic chemicals in and out of our homes, help restore the planet by volunteering at cleanups, habitat and tree-planting projects and working to reduce our carbon footprints. (See or for energy-saving tips.) And of course, we really love it when folks support organizations like Riverkeeper who deal with complicated technical projects like cleaning up toxic mud in the bottom of the river and solving our sewer problems!

I hear that you love sewers. What’s that all about?

We all know the unmistakable signs of sewage in our water—from the nasty smells to floating condoms and trash to the scary bacteria and pollution—and it’s pretty heinous stuff. This year, Riverkeeper studied some pretty cool approaches for preventing rain water from entering into the City of Buffalo sewer system through gorgeous street and community garden/greening projects. The great news was that they are all technically possible in Buffalo, tend to be cheaper than underground options, create more jobs and have added benefits like beautifying the City, making it more bike- and pedestrian-friendly and providing wildlife habitat. Equally exciting is how open the Buffalo Sewer Authority, the City of Buffalo Department of Public Works, and the local NYS Department of Transportation have been to trying these projects out right here in Buffalo!

What’s going on this summer with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper?

A lot! In addition to launching our our first motorized patrol boat on the water, the clean up of toxic sediment in the Buffalo River is set to begin in July bringing millions of federal dollars to Western New York We are working with the Buffalo Sewer Authority on a pilot program to disconnect downspouts and install rain barrels in South Buffalo. We are also partnering on a media campaign called “Our Water Future”—look for our billboards soon. We hope everyone will join us for a waterfront tour, see our rain barrels in action in Garden Walk (and pick one up for home!), volunteer at one of our habitat plantings, and get involved with our sewer campaign. Find out more at!

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