Our free and inclusive Waterkeeper Ride this coming Monday, August 24th, starting at 6:30pm from the Northland Workforce Training Center (683 Northland, see below for the many pandemic-induced changes to Slow Roll), is our second annual ride dedicated to Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW) and their work to “protect drinking water, connect people to waterways, and build a thriving water-based economy.”

Our 12-mile route will include three of Buffalo’s waterways – starting above the buried section of the Scajaquada Creek before riding to the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers. Learn more below and on the ride from BNW’s Director of Community Engagement, Chris Murawski.

What inspired the creation of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper?

Community groups are formed when there is a gap in the needs of the people or environment that is not being met by government or private businesses. The gap our community faced was a dead Buffalo River and no one to formally speak on behalf of it.

Standing on the shoulders of community activists that had been raising the alarm for decades, BNW was started as Friends of the Buffalo River over 30 years ago. Fast forward to today and we have a staff of 23 working on increasing public access in the city, restoring shorelines, planning for protection of our headwater rural areas, engaging thousands of volunteers, and training individuals through environmental education classes and tours.

How has the organization evolved since its founding? 

When we started, the restoration of the Buffalo River Area Concern was our primary focus; after the dredging of toxins in the river, we transitioned to restoring our hardened manmade shorelines into wildlife habitat, rehabbing hundreds of acres.

We have also engaged in watershed-wide planning efforts – we need to protect what’s good and restore what’s bad, and we have a road map for that. We have also made hundreds of new partnerships to work towards our mission, and the list grows everyday. And we continue to build up our volunteer and education program engaging more people every year.

We have also recognized that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have faced many barriers to participation and employment in the environmental movement. We are evolving by necessity to fully engage our community and intentionally focus resources, time, and energy into communities who have been left out and are often the most affected by environmental injustices. We have a statement on racial equity at our website here. We are passionate and committed to becoming a more just, equitable, and diverse organization though our staff, board, partners, and volunteers, and I am proud to help lead this effort.

We are also working to support smaller community groups to get started like my favorite group, Friends of Broderick Park.

How does the mission of Waterkeeper align with that of Slow Roll?

Where our missions align the most is that we are both looking to connect people to from all over the region to different spaces they may not be familiar with. Slow Roll is working on reconnecting people to neighborhoods through the shared joy of cycling, and we are doing the same to connect people to our waterways through active volunteer and recreational opportunities.

Both groups are so much more than just the activity – be it riding bikes or kayaking, it’s more about the human connections made. I have learned about so many other community groups, leaders, and the work they are doing through the Slow Roll, just like I have started many conversations with partners on a kayak tour that led to working together on something. I also think Slow Roll (especially now but always has) focused on having difficult conversations regarding the racial inequities in our country and our communities, which we have focused on through our Young Environmental Leaders Program for years and are now making central to all our work.

How has the pandemic affected the organization and overall cause?

The biggest affect is on our Volunteer Programs. We thrive off of large groups of people coming together to cleanup over 20 tons of litter in one day or plant hundreds of trees. Like everyone else that is Buffalo Strong, we have adjusted by necessity. We have promoted solo or small group cleanups though our Summer Sweep; we have shifted our Environmental Ed programming to virtual, and have promoted hiking, biking, and kayaking on your own through guides; and we even have a Watershed Bingo Board!

Our entire team is all working remotely or in the field in small groups, and we were able to retain all of our staff, which is a blessing. There have been some things that are positive as we have made new or energized existing partnerships, and the ease of jumping on Zoom calls to meet some new folks has been very beneficial.

We have not been able to host the numerous in-person fundraisers we had planned, but are shifting to a monthlong Scajaquada September with some exciting things, so look on our website soon for that.

One thing that has stood out during this is the importance to have natural public places for people to spread out, exercise, and connect to nature. Now more than ever, with so many threats and inequities, we need to protect and increase access to green spaces.

How can folks get involved?

Don’t be an observer on the sidelines – take direct action for our waterways. Volunteer to clean up litter, plant trees, remove invasive species, donate to our organizations, reach out to your local elected official and let them know your concerns for your waters, partner with us if you are involved in a business or organization, register to vote and vote for candidates that support environmental protection for your waters.

Specifically, we are going to be hosting a one-day cleanup of the entire length of Scajaquada Creek on Saturday, September 19th, so look on our website soon for registration. We love meeting new people and partners – reach out to us anytime to get involved.