The Buffalo River Area of Concern

Buffalo River Remedial Advisory Committee
Buffalo Niagara RIVERKEEPER is the Remedial Action Plan coordinator tasked with identifying and implementing projects leading toward delisting, and developing and implementing Monitoring Protocols for the Beneficial Use Impairment (BUIs) for the River. Currently RIVERKEEPER is seeking members for two subgroups – Water Quality and Habitat.  Requests to participate in this group are due by June 6th. Please read the descriptions below:



For additional information or to sign up, please contact Katherine Winkler at or (716) 852-7483 ext 15.

About the “Area of Concern”
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.

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.  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 Riverkeeper).  With the assistance of the Remedial Advisory Committee (RAC), NYSDEC, and over 30 other governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations, Riverkeeper 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 Indicator2010 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); AND

2)  When contaminant levels due to watershed or in-place contaminants in resident native and exotic fish and wildlife populations that could be consumed do not exceed current NYS standards.
2. Tainting of Fish & Wildlife FlavorImpairedPAHs in sediments.1)  No exceedances of water quality standards or criteria for compounds associated with tainting within the AOC; AND

2)  No reports of tainting from fish and wildlife officials or informed public observers.
3. Degradation of Fish & Wildlife PopulationsImpairedLow dissolved oxygen, river channelization, and contaminated sediments.Fish Populations –
1) Fish surveys find that the resident fish community is fair to good based on applicable fish community biological indices (IBI) for two consecutive surveys; AND

2) The frequency of occurrence of DELT anomalies in bottom-dwelling fish does not exceed recommended levels; AND

3) Whole-body concentrations of Endocrine Disruptors (including but not limited to: PCBs, dioxins, and pesticides) in bottom dwelling fish do not exceed critical tissue concentrations for adverse effects on fish; AND

4) Water quality measures (based on NYS RIBS or other monitoring) meet state standards for at least a Class C river.

Wildlife Populations –

1) Wildlife surveys find that diversity and abundance of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians in the AOC is comparable to a suitable reference site; AND

2) Wildlife assessments confirm no significant toxicity from water column or sediment contaminants; AND

3) Diversity of amphibian populations in AOC pocket wetlands is similar to upstream and/or Tifft marsh levels; AND

4) Diversity of benthic populations in the AOC is comparable to upstream levels.
4. Fish Tumors and Other DeformitiesImpairedContaminated sediments and navigational dredging.1) Survey data confirm the absence of neoplastic liver tumors in bullheads (as compared to a control site) for two consecutive sampling events; AND

2) Contaminants in water and sediments in the AOC do not exceed NYS standards.
5. Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive ProblemsImpairedPCBs, DDT, and metabolites in sediments.1) Deformities or reproductive problem rates are not statistically different than inland background levels as reported from wildlife officials or trained observers; AND

2) Concentrations of bioaccumulative chemicals in fish do not exceed levels associated with reproductive problems in piscivorus wildlife; AND/OR

3) Concentrations in sediment do not exceed levels associated with benthic impairment that could result in reproductive problems in omnivorous and benthivorous birds and wildlife.
6. Degradation of BenthosImpairedContaminated sediments and navigational dredging.1) Benthic macroinvertebrate communities are non-impacted or slightly impacted according to NYSDEC indices for two consecutive sampling events; OR

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 contaminants in the river or shoreline via point source or non-point sources through the implementation of Best Management Practices; AND

2) Organic, chemical, and biological contaminants should not persist in concentrations that can be detected as visible film, sheen, or discoloration on the surface, detected by odor, or form deposits on shorelines and bottom sediments.
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
a) A minimum 100-foot buffer of native vegetation on new development on each riverbank is maintained and enforced upstream from the Ohio Street Bridge.
b) Significant floodplain, wetland, or riparian habitat areas in the AOC are protected and/or restored.
c) A minimum 25% of the AOC shoreline is restored to natural slope, shallows, and aquatic (emergent and submerged) native vegetation, including naturalizing areas of the City Ship Canal shoreline.

2) Improve Stream Quality Index scores from “poor” to at least “good”
a) Water quality measures (based on NYS RIBS or other monitoring) meet state standards for at least a Class C river.
b) Aquatic habitat scores are fair to good AND/OR the lower Buffalo River is no longer listed as “stressed” for aquatic life on the NYS Priority Waterbodies List.

3) Restore hydrologic function to support habitat and species goals listed in BUI#3
a) Reduce navigational dredging in the AOC to support aquatic habitat and species goals (BUI #3) AND/OR
b) Restore and protect natural flows, meanders, and stream habitat in River Corridor opportunity areas upstream of the AOC.

Please click on the boxes below for more information about the Buffalo River Area of Concern.




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

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