Spotlight Interview with Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Spotlight Interview with Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Posted: September 29, 2022 at 4:15 pm

For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Elizabeth (Liz) Cute, the Senior Community Engagement Manager at Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper affiliate profile

Where: Buffalo, New York USA

Number of regions: 9

Number of sites: 27

Sampling season: Sampling season starts Victoria Day Weekend and ends Labour Day Weekend

Sampling frequency: Collected weekly at minimum

Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2012

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Danica: Thank you for meeting with me. If we could just start off with you getting a personal introduction and then explaining a bit about your current role at Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper?


Liz: My name is Liz Cute. I’m a Senior Community Engagement Manager at Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. Our offices are based in Buffalo, New York, but our work focuses more broadly on the Niagara River watershed. I have a background in Environmental Science, a Bachelor of Science and an art minor. So I get to utilize both sides of my brain here at Waterkeeper, where I coordinate our Riverwatch citizen science program, where we do a lot of the water monitoring and testing. 

I also work a lot on our Youth Environmental Education programming and some of our policy and advocacy work. And within that, I get to do some fun graphics and design. In a nonprofit, you get to do a lot of different things, which keeps it very fun and exciting. I’m not originally from Western New York, but I have a Great Lakes background; I’m from the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. So I have always had a deep connection to our Great Lakes and our freshwater resources but now switching gears to more of an urban area. I’ve learned a lot about the different pollution sources and impacts on our waterways here compared to a more rural headwaters location, up in the UP. That’s been really great to learn about. I’ve been able to utilize that to educate our community about the issues facing our waterways and how they can help be stewards of our waterways or help us collect data so that we can better understand what’s going on. 


Danica: That is super interesting. Could you go into the difference in the problems that you’d see in a rural area versus a more urban city environment?


Liz: Yeah. And I mean, we do see these issues in our watershed itself. With our offices being in the city, I get to see that more firsthand. We do have some rural issues in our watershed headwaters. There’s agricultural pollution, or sometimes there’s a lot of mining issues or livestock that introduce pollutants in some of those rural areas. In our urban areas, we see stormwater runoff bringing in different types of pollution from our impervious surfaces, bringing in a lot of urban stormwater pollution and combined sewer overflows (CSOs). We see that in our urban areas here in Buffalo since we’re an old rust belt city with older infrastructure and so we have CSOs. That’s what a portion of our Riverwatch program is looking to get a better understanding of here in Western New York, in terms of when there’s wet weather, how are these CSOs impacting water quality and does that impact the safety of water users in terms of recreation.

Danica: Would you say that the biggest issue that your watershed faces are CSOs?


Liz: Stormwater runoff in general. In urban areas, it might be CSOs but in rural areas, the stormwater pollution/runoff might be impacting the waterways differently in terms of nutrient pollution directly from the land, not getting into the stormwater system. But stormwater runoff is a huge one.


Danica: It’s awesome that you’re all doing that work, especially when you consider how many people rely on the Great Lakes as drinking water. 


Liz: Drinking water, boating, recreation. We’re all making contact with it one way or another.


Danica: Yeah, for sure. We’re definitely lucky to have the Great Lakes. I was looking at your website and was wondering if you could talk about Scajaquada September.


Liz: Every September for the last couple of years, we’ve been celebrating Scajaquada September, and that is a creek in our urban area here just north of the city. We like to call it our second Buffalo River. Our organization became what it is because of the cleanup of the Buffalo River. We’ve done a lot of restoration work on that river and there are still some aspects of cleanup needed but now we’re kind of shifting to the next most polluted waterway in our region, which is Scajaquada Creek; it has a lot of issues. There’s an expressway built over top of it, bringing in a lot of stormwater runoff and pollution. There are CSOs entering the waterway; there’s legacy pollution and contaminated sediment. In the suburbs, there are sanitary sewer issues. It is also channelized and buried underground for several miles; there’s a shopping mall built over top of it. So it has a lot of things impacting it, but it also goes through a lot of really important communities where because of these issues, these folks aren’t able to enjoy their local waterway in their community. It’s buried underground, or it’s not safe to fish or to recreate on, so we’re really hoping to partner with different municipalities and organizations to oversee a holistic restoration. Scajaquada September is our way to really focus our energy and attention on this creek and bring people in to learn about these issues and our vision to get inspired to help us along the way to make changes and to get it to where it can be. We do some cleanups where we’ll be picking up plastic litter and collecting data on that. We do some lunch and learns so that folks can learn about the history of the waterway. We’ll do a fun scavenger hunt activity getting folks out and about and exploring. So a lot of fun things are happening.

Danica: That is a really cool way to get everybody connected to the waterbody. So obviously that’s based on the big improvements that you all have been able to make on the Buffalo River. What learnings from that project have you taken forward to implement the other creeks and waterbodies that need it?


Liz: We’ve learned a lot from the restoration of the Buffalo River. We’ve had to partner with a lot of different entities. We worked with the Army Corps to do sediment dredging of contaminated sediments. We’ve worked with a lot of different contractors for upland restoration projects and the design. So you know, we’re working with a lot of folks; landowners, municipalities, or cities. It’s really bringing people together to make this happen. It can’t just be our vision and our goal, we have to have the buy-in across the board with everyone so we’ve been able to take that for any of our different restoration projects, even down to what plants will actually thrive and survive in our region. We’ve learned so much from the Buffalo River and how to bring in the community in all aspects of the project from the beginning to the completion so that we can all celebrate.


Danica: It’s interesting how many different aspects come into play. Shifting gears a bit, maybe you could talk a little bit about the projects you work on specifically and your role within those projects?


Liz: I will focus on our Riverwatch programs since that’s where we’re connected to Swim Guide, specifically. Our Riverwatch program is one of our longest ongoing community engagement programs, we recruit and train community volunteers to collect data throughout our watershed.

This one has been ongoing for probably close to 15 years, so we have a really robust data set from certain waterways. We’ve been able to expand to more waterways throughout our watershed in the last five years or so and start testing for different things and collecting data on different aspects. We do water monitoring starting in May, through to the end of October, since we have a pretty rough winter here in Buffalo, so that’s our water season. 


We have a bunch of different opportunities for our volunteers. We have our baseline water quality monitors, who use high-tech water quality probes to collect water chemistry information so the temperature, DO, pH, and conductivity, it’s really a pulse check on our waterways. They go out to sites monthly; it’ll range from anywhere from 75 sites to upwards of 100 sites depending on the year and how things shake out. We have volunteers that are trained to visually ID harmful algal blooms, as we see those in some of our inland waterways, slow-moving creeks and streams, and smaller ponds or lakes so that we can be alerted and inform our local Department of Environmental Conservation. This way we can get communication out to the public so that they can stay safe and healthy. We have volunteers that collect data on plastic pollution. Specifically, we have some volunteers focused on nurdles, little plastic pellets, and trying to track down what the source of those nurdles is. If we can tie it to a potential polluter, we can try to work with them to rectify it to prevent future spills or things like that from happening. 


We utilize this data to put out an annual report at the end of the year; our Riverwatch Water Quality Report. We also upload data to our website; we use water reporter for a lot of our data. Our bacteria data is collected by staff because of handling times and getting samples incubated. They collect samples to analyze for E. coli bacteria and that is the info that we update on Swim Guide so that it will be accessible to anyone that is looking on the app or website. And our sample sites are interesting. We don’t sample our typical beaches here in Western New York, the state parks sample and put out postings for those locations. But we have so many waterways where we do see people swimming even though it’s not a beach or there’s a lot of contact through kayaking, canoeing, or fishing, or different ways and so we’d like to know the conditions of those waterways. 


Danica: Yeah, for sure. It’s like you said, the city’s not necessarily testing everywhere, and people are recreating everywhere that there is water, I think it’s almost human to want to interact with it.


Liz: Yeah! So we’re filling that gap with what the state can test for and that’s really why the Riverwatch program started. In New York State, the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) does sampling throughout the state on a rotating basis and they’re not focusing on Western New York and our watershed every year. We want to know the conditions and the general health of our waterways every year so our volunteers help us collect that robust data set so that we can track long term. That helps to influence where potential restoration projects occur, or where we need to focus for different advocacy efforts. So it gives our staff a lot of information to utilize in a lot of different ways and it’s great public health information as well.


Danica: For sure, it’s interesting how much a little bit of data goes a long way, especially with social media and sharing.


Liz: We try to use it as much as we can. We don’t want it to just sit in an Excel file on our server, we want to share this information. We’ve even built educational lessons to allow teachers and students to tap into this data and analyze it or create graphs. If they can use a local data set, it just makes the lesson more tangible and more interesting. So we’ve tried to utilize it in a lot of different ways so that it can help and connect as many folks as possible.


Danica: That’s cool. If somebody wanted to access those learning materials, where could they do that?


Liz: We have a school programs webpage. On our school programs page, we have different materials for elementary education, and we have some middle and high school educational lessons as well and we’re continually adding to that. 


And then all of the data that we have is available on the Swim Guide which is publicly accessible through the website or the app, and then all of our other water quality data is on our website. And all of that data can be downloaded. It’s public, so folks can take it and analyze it how they wish. We want it to be free and we want it to be out there.


Danica: That’s amazing. Thank you so much. Okay, the last question that we always ask everybody: what is your watershed’s secret?


Liz: Oh, that’s interesting. I feel like I would get a different answer from different staff or folks who’ve lived here maybe longer than I have. Our watershed is so big, we have 11 sub-watersheds within the Niagara River watershed so it’s very vast. So from Niagara Falls, a wonder of the world, to old-growth forests. We have such a variety of habitats and waterways with different things. The best secret is such an interesting question. You stumped me.


Danica: That’s okay. We can encourage the readers to go and find out for themselves. Okay. Well, I think that’s all for now. Thank you so much for chatting with me.


Liz: Thanks for reaching out. This is cool that you’re doing this series. It’ll be interesting to see what other keepers and organizations are up to. 


To learn more about Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper and its initiatives, visit its website at

Author: Walter Cook