Onondaga Lake

Lake Background Information

History of Onondaga Lake
The early history of the lake can be traced back to Native Americans of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations. For centuries, the five nations worked together to steward the lake which became a sacred place for Native Americans in this region. European settlers migrated to the area during the late 17th and early 18th century. The Lake, its creeks, and rivers served as major transportation routes during this period.

The Erie Canal was built in the early 1800s and opened the interior of New York State to new settlement. In the early 19th century, Onondaga Lake’s water level was lowered by dredging its outlet to drain a swampy area that is now the northern end of downtown Syracuse. Eliminating the swamp effectively eliminated malaria in the growing city.

By 1900, the shoreline of Onondaga Lake was dotted with major tourist attractions including hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. One large amusement area was the Iron Pier resort sited near present-day Carousel Center-DestiNY USA. Pollution of the lake from the growing city and diverse expanding industries reduced its use as a resort, although Syracuse created an Interceptor Sewer Board as far back as 1907 to address sewage problems in Onondaga Creek and Harbor Brook. By 1940, the lake was declared unsafe for swimming.

By the 1970s, fishing was banned. Because of mercury contamination, the lake’s bottom was listed as a Superfund site in 1994. Additional contaminated areas were identified around the lake’s shore. New York State and the federal government continue to pursue remediation of these sites through the responsible parties. The State initiated a national resources damages claim in 1989.

Amended Consent Judgment
The Onondaga Lake Amended Consent Judgment (ACJ) stems from a 1989 Judgment on Consent settling litigation between the State of New York, the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, and Onondaga County in connection with alleged violations of state and federal water pollution control laws.

The conditions of the Judgment on Consent required the County to perform a series of engineering and scientific studies to evaluate the need for upgrading the Metropolitan Sewage Treatment Plant (Metro) and for providing treatment of the combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that occur in the Metro service area.

Based on the results of those studies and in consultation with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the County developed a plan for upgrading Metro and addressing the CSOs. The County submitted the proposed Municipal Compliance Plan (MCP) to the State and Atlantic States Legal Foundation. The result was the execution of the Amended Consent Judgment (ACJ) which was signed in January 1998 by all the parties—NYSDEC, the State Attorney General, ASLF, and the County. For more information regarding the ACJ and for a copy of the agreement, please visit: http://www.ongov.net/forms/images/ACJ.pdf

(Plant Operations Center – METRO)

(Aerial view of Onondaga Lake)

(Recreational Fishing on Onondaga Lake)

Key Provisions
The 1998 ACJ was designed to improve the water quality of Onondaga Lake and achieve full compliance with state and federal water quality regulations by December 1, 2012. Although completion of the entire project was not required until 2012, many of the projects were scheduled for completion by the end of 2009.

The major provisions of the plan included:

  • Improvement and upgrading of the County’s main sewage treatment plant (Metro)
  • Eliminating and/or decreasing the effects of the combined sewer overflows on the lake
    and its tributaries
  • A lake and tributary monitoring program designed to evaluate the effects of the improvement projects on the water quality of the lake and tributary streams

ACJ Project Highlights
The original ACJ outlined several project milestones that have been completed:

  • Construction of a new state-of-the-art Treatment Facility at Metro to reduce ammonia and phosphorus discharge into Onondaga Lake.
  • $342 million expended to date on ACJ projects
  • 33 projects completed
  • Compliance with bacteria, ammonia and phosphorus reduction levels.
  • Significant reduction in the number of CSO discharge points including:
    • 13 sewer separation projects – eliminating 13 CSOs
    • 6 floatable control projects – addressing 4+ CSOs
    • 2 regional treatment and storage facilities addressing 5 CSOs

Improvements to the Lake
ACJ projects have resulted in great improvements to the water quality of Onondaga Lake. Phosphorus levels are presently lower than ever recorded and ammonia levels are several years ahead of target reduction. The lake has seen increased oxygen levels and water clarity. Improvements to habitat for aquatic species and plant life have supported a diverse and productive biological community. Fish are quite abundant and angling is becoming increasingly popular. The lake now resembles other regional lakes with respect to: number of fish species present, the balance of the fish community, the extent of aquatic vegetation and summertime water clarity. Algae blooms are rare and recreational boating is becoming more and
more popular.

A New Way of Thinking
In 2008, Onondaga County Executive Joanne M. Mahoney put a temporary hold on ACJ construction projects to determine the feasibility of incorporating the use of green infrastructure in place of traditional gray methods. The County worked with all parties of the ACJ to develop a new environmentally friendly plan that would include a combination of green and gray solutions to improve the water quality in Onondaga Lake.

In November 2009, the revised ACJ plan was approved by the Court. The revised ACJ includes an aggressive initiative to develop green infrastructure that will position Onondaga County as
a leader in the use of environmentally sustainable solutions to reduce CSO pollution.

Why Green Infrastructure?
Green infrastructure is a sustainable solution for capturing stormwater runoff. The use of these natural or engineered systems, enhance overall environmental quality by capturing rainwater where it lands. Green systems can reduce the amount of stormwater that flows to storm drains, which will prevent overloading the sewer system and reduce CSO’s. Reducing the volume of stormwater entering the sewer system will lead to improved water quality of Onondaga Lake and its tributaries.

(Harrison Street – Before)
(Harrison Street – After)

Green Infrastructure Solutions:

  • Rain garden
  • Green roof
  • Green wall
  • Bioswale (or vegetated swale)
  • Permeable pavement
  • Rain barrel
  • Cistern

In addition to reducing stormwater runoff, green infrastructure provides several secondary benefits including:

  • Air quality
  • Neighborhood aesthetics
  • Habitat and biodiversity
  • Recreational and transportation opportunities
  • Increased property values
  • Community health and vitality

New Outlook
Today’s celebration is the culmination of decades of hard work and commitment. As we look to the future, we recognize the impact a clean Onondaga Lake can have on this region, and we are committed to preserving this great natural resource for future generations!

(Rain Garden – Bioretention)
(Rain Barrel)

For more information please visit the following links: