Onondaga Lake

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Onondaga Lake is experiencing a remarkable recovery – due in large part to the investments in green and gray infrastructure as well as upgrades to the state-of-the-art Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Facility (Metro). The ecosystem is thriving with the improved water quality of the lake and its tributaries, including diverse and abundant fish populations. Onondaga Lake has a rich history and also a promising future as it has once again become an asset to our community.

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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 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. A Consent Judgment was reached settling litigation between New York State, the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, and Onondaga County in connection with alleged violations of state and federal water pollution control laws. After some progress was made under the original Consent Judgment, in 1998 an Amended Consent Judgment was approved and improvements to reduce the combined sewer system were advanced. New thinking occurred in 2008 and a new approach that embraced green infrastructure solutions was put into place in 2009.

Over the last decade, great strides have been made in improving Onondaga Lake’s overall water quality. These improvements are a direct result of:

  • $173 million investment in upgrades, including advanced phosphorus and ammonia removal at the County’s Metropolitan wastewater treatment facility plant (Metro) in 2005 and 2006.
  • Projects to improve the sewer system including 13 CSOs eliminated due to thirteen sewer separation projects
  • Implementation of over 175 green infrastructure projects throughout the combined sewershed
  • Long-term trends in total phosphorus concentrations in the lake’s upper waters continue to depict major decreases since the early 1990s. Phosphorus is the limiting nutrient for algal growth in Onondaga Lake.
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Today, Onondaga Lake 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. Lower phosphorus levels in the lake have resulted in fewer and less severe algal blooms. Less algae also means clearer water and more oxygen for aquatic life. Algal blooms have not occurred in Onondaga Lake since 2007 and recreational boating is becoming more and more popular. As part of Onondaga County’s Ambient Monitoring Program (AMP), the fish community of Onondaga Lake has been monitored since 2000. Changes in the fish community have occurred as water quality and habitat conditions have improved. Clear water improves light penetration, allowing expansion of aquatic plants and improving fish habitat. Since 2000, more than 149,000 individual fish have been captured from Onondaga Lake by Onondaga County’s sampling efforts, representing fifty-three species.

Onondaga Lake Fish Poster 2014
What is the connection between the health of Onondaga Lake and the County’s Save the Rain Program? The connection lies in how we, the community, have changed how we respect the water; from raindrops, to stormwater, to Onondaga Lake. We have learned that each element is connected and directly influences the other – every drop counts!
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!

Learn more about the county’s monitoring program as well as the revitalization of the Onondaga Lake West Shore.