BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Corps of Engineers ecosystem restoration project at Seneca Bluffs Natural Habitat Park, along the Buffalo River in South Buffalo, is approaching its final phase. The project team will plant native riverbank plant species to replace the invasive species like Japanese knotweed and phragmites removed last year.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, provided the necessary funding for the Seneca Bluffs project. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local partners identified Seneca Bluffs as an important part of the plan to restore the habitat of the Buffalo River Area of Concern, an area prioritized by the USEPA for environmental improvement.

"What makes Seneca Bluffs unique is its location in the urban core," said Josh Unghire, ecologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District. "This is one of a few remaining undeveloped land areas near the city, and the soil is actually intact-it's not urban fill like in other sites."

With federal funding made available through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the U.S. EPA directed the Corps of Engineers to develop and implement a plant that would restore 3,100 linear feet of riverbank along Seneca Bluffs by reducing bank erosion and improving its ecology. Historic industrial and urban expansion along the Buffalo River has altered much of its natural character often resulting in concrete and replacing riverbank habitat.

Despite the decline of commercial traffic over the past century, the riverbanks near Seneca Bluffs had suffered from severe erosion, invasion of exotic species, and loss of native plant and animal habitat. One of the Corps of Engineers' first tasks was to restore the floodplain along this section of the river, by re-grading the riverbank so that the land gradually met the river.

The transformation of the riverbank landscape was important because it would now allow animals such as beavers and muskrats to access the vegetation, shrubs and trees in the adjoining park. Providing this river-land connectivity for wildlife provides increased habitat quality.

Erosion had also become an issue along Seneca Bluffs, so the Corps of Engineers designed the riverbank to be resilient to future changes in water level, while avoiding excessive use of stone that would impair the land-water connectivity. With a decrease in erosion, Unghire expects there to be decreased turbidity in the lower river, improved water clarity, more plant growth, and aquatic habitat establishment. The project team also placed logs and root wads along the shoreline of the river to act as a cover and refuge location for fish and other aquatic life. With the reduction of steep drops, the area is safer for park visitors who may venture near the water.

Restoring the ecosystem at Seneca Bluffs faced some difficulties.
"Removing the invasive species continues to be our greatest challenge," said Unghire. "These plants are persistent, and long term management will likely be required to ensure the native vegetation can get established."

The Corps of Engineers documented the invasive species removal process in a video in June 2018 (https://www.facebook.com/BuffaloDistrict/videos/1571153612918587/).

While Erie County owns and manages Seneca Bluffs Natural Habitat Park, stakeholders such as the WNY Partnership for Invasive Species Management, the Buffalo River Remedial Advisory Committee, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have also supported the EPA project.

"Seneca Bluffs Natural Habitat Park is protected parkland and a hidden ecological gem that resides in a very urbanized, developing area of our community," said Vicki Haas, Natural Habitat Parks Manager and Senior Environmental Compliance Specialist for Erie County. "Erie County has built strong relationships with stakeholders and community groups that will help ensure the long-term success of the federally funded shoreline restoration improvements. We can never turn our back on invasive species or they will return with a vengeance. Ongoing volunteer plantings and invasive species management events will help us to protect this investment."

Softened riverbanks. Check. Invasive species removed. Check. So what remains?

"The end state of the project is to see well-established, native species of plants, shrubs and trees," said Unghire. "We'll continue to monitor the plantings to see that they take, while also making sure the invasive species are not bouncing back."

This spring, new growth of herbaceous vegetation is already visible in the locations where Corps of Engineers contractors planted last year. Increased vegetation along the riverbank assists with bank stabilization and provides nesting areas for local wildlife. To see Josh Unguire's video update at Seneca Bluffs, visit https://www.facebook.com/BuffaloDistrict/videos/1933316080035670/.