Frequently Asked Questions
Click on any question below to jump to the answer.
2. Where is Onondaga Lake, how big is it, and what are its tributaries?
3. How did Onondaga Lake become polluted?
4. What has been done in the past to clean up the Lake?
5. What is being done currently to continue to clean up the lake?
6. Where did the mercury in the lake sediments come from, and how will it be taken care of?
7. What is the Record of Decision (ROD) for the Onondaga Lake bottom site?
8. What are combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and how do they effect the lake?
9. Will we ever be able to swim in the lake? Is any contact with the water forbidden?
10. What is the status of the projects that Onondaga County is undertaking to improve the water quality of the lake?
11. What fish are in the lake and are they healthy? Will they ever be edible?
12. What is nonpoint source pollution, and how does it affect the lake?
13. What can an individual do to help the lake?
1. What is the Onondaga Lake Partnership, and what is its role in lake clean up?
With the passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 1999, the U.S. Congress assigned the Secretary of the Army the responsibility for the establishment and leadership of the Onondaga Lake Partnership. The Partnership replaced the Onondaga Lake Management Conference, which had been established in 1990. The Senior Partners in the Partnership include: Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), Administrator of USEPA, Governor of New York, Attorney General of New York, County Executive of Onondaga County, and the Mayor of Syracuse. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District office, leads the Partnership on behalf of the Secretary of the Army.
The partnership provides a framework for local, state, and federal governments to cooperate in rehabilitating Onondaga Lake. The three committees of the Partnership (Outreach, Project and Executive) include representatives of the community such as special interest groups, businesses, and educational institutions. The Partnership oversees the activities of all the agencies and groups involved in improving the lake, including the wastewater treatment projects led by the County and the hazardous waste site remedial efforts managed by the State. The Partnership is also involved with coordinating and obtaining available state, federal, local and private monies to assist in lake and watershed rehabilitation programs.
Onondaga Lake is located in upstate New York along the northern end of Syracuse in Onondaga County. The lake itself is approximately one mile wide and 4.6 miles long and covers an area of 4.6 square miles. It has a mean depth of 35 feet and a maximum depth of 63 feet. Its drainage basin, or watershed, is 285 square miles consisting of both urban and rural land uses. The lake's natural tributaries are Nine Mile Creek, Onondaga Creek, Harbor Brook, Ley Creek, Saw Mill Creek, and Bloody Brook. Water flows from the lake into the Seneca River through a single outlet at the Lake's north end. The Seneca River combines with the Oneida River to form the Oswego River, which flows north into Lake Ontario.
The water quality of Onondaga Lake had been affected by more than a century of domestic and industrial pollution from the homes, businesses and industries in and around Syracuse. The major sources of the pollution were those related to municipal wastewater, industrial operations, and runoff:
- Municipal sources of pollution were caused by the combined sewer overflows that put sewage into Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake and by the phosphorus and ammonia that was discharged after the wastewater was treated. Collection and treatment of pollution was significantly improved in the first decade of the 21st century.
- In the 19th and 20th centuries, industries operated near the lake's shore and disposed of waste products on nearby land or discharged it in the lake. As a result, numerous hazardous waste sites are found around the lake. Contamination of the lake's bottom sediments led to its placement on the federal Superfund list.
- Nonpoint pollution generated in the lake's watershed has affected the lake. A variety of activities can contribute nonpoint pollution to the lake. Examples include failing septic tanks, improper disposal of household wastes, poor management of animal wastes in farming operations, and excessive street debris and litter in urban areas. Because nonpoint pollution does not result from a single point, identifying its extent and controlling this form of pollution are difficult.
The lake's water quality has improved since the passage of more stringent environmental laws like the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the federal Superfund program. Under the Clean Water Act, major improvements were and are continuing to be made to upgrade wastewater treatment at Metro and under CERCLA, the lake sediments and related sites were added to the federal Superfund list in 1994. Separate legal actions under these laws involving the State government against Onondaga County and Allied-Signal Inc. have resulted in ongoing programs aimed at rehabilitating the lake and meeting water quality standards.
The County improved sewage treatment at the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant (Metro) in 1979 and upgraded again in 1981. Further upgrades to improve the removal of ammonia and phosphorus from the Metro effluent were completed in 2004 and 2005 as required under the Amended Consent Judgment (ACJ) approved by the federal court in 1998 and were still necessary to meet water quality standards. Another factor that assisted in improving the lake's water quality was the closure of Allied-Signal's Syracuse operations in 1986. With its closure, direct discharges of mercury, chlorides and other contaminants from that operation ceased, but contamination still continued.
New York State filed an action against Allied-Signal Inc. (now Honeywell International Company) in 1989 that addressed both the ongoing sources of contamination under the Federal Superfund Program and the historic effects on the lake through a claim for Natural Resource Damages. The Remedial Investigation was completed in 2002. On July 1, 2005, a remedy was selected for the cleanup of the bottom site. The Record of Decision (ROD) explains this selected remedy. See question #7.
Two main programs are underway plus a number of programs related to lake improvement issues. Onondaga County has upgraded sewage treatment and has reduced combined sewer overflows.
After closure of Allied-Signal's Syracuse operations in 1986, New York State sued Allied-Signal Inc. (now Honeywell International) for alleged past and continuing contamination of the lake. Several sites owned by Honeywell as well sites owned by other companies were identified as potential sources of contamination and slated for further study to determine whether or not they affected the lake and should be remediated. Honeywell and other industrial parties have undertaken remedial measures to reduce contamination.
The Onondaga Creek Revitalization Work Group was busy during 2006-2007 developing a community-based revitalization plan that will provide a guide for future development, water quality, and habitat improvements along Onondaga Creek and in its watershed. The Onondaga Lake Partnership also funded a project during 2006-2007 that solicited the opinions of hundreds of area residents about their visions for the lake's future. The results of these lake and creek visioning projects will help guide the Onondaga Lake Partnership when making decisions about how to allocate project funds and achieve overall lake revitalization goals.
The Partnership is also preparing to develop Onondaga Lake Watershed Progress Assessment and Action Strategies for certain lake improvement categories that are not related to the wastewater treatment and hazardous site remediation such as nonpoint source pollution and habitat revitalization.
Allied-Signal Inc. discharged an estimated 165,000 pounds of mercury into Onondaga Lake from 1946 to 1970. Scientists estimate that 7 million cubic yards of the lake sediments were contaminated. As a result, the lake bottom sediments are listed as a hazardous waste site on the National Superfund List. Allied-Signal, Inc. completed a series of mercury studies to identify the major on-going sources of mercury in the lake watershed and recommend ways to eliminate contamination in the lake and in the fish. In July 2005, NYSDEC and USEPA selected a remedy for the lake bottom that will protect human health and the environment, including fish. See Question 7 for more information about the Record of Decision.
On July 1, 2005 a remedy was selected for cleanup of the Onondaga Lake bottom. The remedy is documented in the Record of Decision (ROD), issued by NYSDED and USEPA in cooperation with the NYS Department of Health.The ROD calls for dredging and capping lake sediments, both of which are proven environmental cleanup methods. The goal of dredging and capping is to remove the most polluted sediments from the lake and construct an isolation cap of layered sand, gravel, and other material to separate undredged material from the lake system.
In 2007, the Consent Decree between NYSDEC and Honeywell for the lake bottom cleanup was approved by a federal judge. The NYSDEC will continue to work with Honeywell to carry out the remedy. See the NYS DEC website.
The City of Syracuse, like many older cities in the country, has a sewer system that collects both stormwater runoff and sanitary wastewater in the same pipes. In dry weather, these pipes carry all the wastewater to the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant for treatment and disinfection. When heavy rain or snow melt leads to an increase in the amount of stormwater in the system, the volume of the combined flow of wastewater and stormwater can exceed the capacity of some of the sewer lines. Under these conditions, the combined sewer system is designed to discharge into nearby streams rather than backup in homes or in the streets. These releases from the CSOs allow bacteria, floating trash, solids and other contaminants to flow into Onondaga Creek, Harbor Brook, and Ley Creek, and from there into Onondaga Lake.
Under court order, the County's CSO program must achieve the following:
- Eliminate or capture for treatment at least 85% of the volume of the combined sewage collected in the system during precipitation events.
- Eliminate or minimize floating substances in the lake from CSOs.
- Achieve water quality standards for bacteria in the lake.
The ACJ program is designed to address every CSO in the Lake tributary system and reduce or eliminate their effects.
No swimming is currently allowed in Onondaga Lake. Bacteria in the discharges from the overflows can cause sickness or disease and are the remaining major limiting factor for allowing swimming in Onondaga Lake. Today, public health standards for bacteria are violated in the southern half of the lake following storm events, which cause discharges from the combined sewer overflows. These violations prevent the lake from being used for swimming. During the summer months, the days of violation relate directly to the amount of rainfall. In the 2007 summer season, bacteria standards were met for individual samples in the north end of the lake all season. Violations continued, however, in the southern end.
In addition, public health standards for opening a bathing beach require the lake's clarity to be four feet or greater throughout the summer. Phosphorus stimulates the growth of algae, which gives the water a cloudy green appearance and reduces the water clarity. Reductions in the phosphorus loadings to the lake from the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant have helped to improve the lake's water clarity, but the four-foot clarity requirement is not met consistently.
Under the court-mandated Amended Consent Judgment (ACJ), the County is required to complete over 30 different projects designed to upgrade wastewater treatment at the Metro facility and eliminate and/or mitigate the effects of the combined sewer overflows. These projects are all aimed at improving the overall water quality of the lake and its tributaries and bring the County into compliance with federal and state water quality regulations. See the Onondaga County website for the status of the projects.
Onondaga Lake is filled with many game fish. As the lake has become cleaner and fish habitat has improved, many species of trophy size fish have been found and caught. In 1972, surveys identified only nine different species and in 1946, thirteen species were recorded. Today, there are over sixty varieties of fish. Some species reside in the lake year-round, and other species migrate in and out of the lake, dependent on changes in the lake's oxygen levels. Important sport fish species in the lake include bluegill, pumpkinseed, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, yellow perch, common carp, channel catfish, brown bullhead, crappie, walleye and brown trout. The increasing populations and varieties of fish reflect a vast improvement from conditions in the 1950s, when fishery surveys showed that more than 90% of the total fish in the lake were common carp.
The DOH has issued a general health advisory that recommends eating no more than one eight-ounce meal of fish per week from any of New York State's fresh waters. The 2007-2008 advisory for fish consumption in Onondaga Lake is more stringent than the general advisory for fresh waters: eat no walleye, largemouth bass over 15 inches and smallmouth bass over 15 inches; eat no more than one meal per month of carp, channel catfish and white perch; and no more than one meal per month of all other species including largemouth and smallmouth bass smaller than 15 inches.
Nonpoint source pollution refers to water pollution that does not originate from a single clearly identifiable source like a pipe from a factory into a water body. Nonpoint source pollution originates over a broad area of land and a variety of sources and can be in an urban or rural setting. Examples of nonpoint source pollution include sediment from construction sites, uncovered salt storage from highway operations, leachate from septic tanks, agricultural runoff of sediment or manure, fertilizer or pesticides from farms and residential lawns, street litter, and petroleum products from automobiles. These pollutants can be carried to streams and lakes in runoff or transported to street drains through wind, rain, and snow and then carried into waterways. See more on Onondaga County's website.
Because of its dispersed sources, nonpoint source pollution is more difficult to control than point source pollution. It's also more difficult to assess effects on the lake's water quality from nonpoint sources than from point source pollution. The extent of the effects of nonpoint source pollution on Onondaga Lake is under investigation. However, any activities that generate nonpoint source pollution in the lake's 285 square mile watershed can lead to pollution in the lake. Fertilizers contain phosphorus, one of the leading contaminants of concern for Onondaga Lake. Phosphorus leads to algae growth, which effects the lake's water clarity. When the algae die, oxygen is consumed, leading to depletion of oxygen in the lake. Urban nonpoint sources including street debris, lawn chemicals, and petroleum based products such as motor oil, can all end up in the lake and contribute to reduced aesthetics and water quality problems.
An additional issue with Onondaga Lake is the effect of high concentrations of clay and silt, which are carried into the lake from Onondaga Creek. Most of these sediments come from the Tully Valley mudboils, which are located about 15 miles upstream from the mouth of Onondaga Creek. Mudboils are holes in the earth that discharge mud and soft sediments from underground. Much of Onondaga Creek's streambed downstream of the mudboil area is covered with these sediments. The muddy sediments reduce habitats for aquatic insects, fish spawning, and plant growth in Onondaga Creek and contribute to the sediment loading of the lake. Diversions, pressure relief wells, and a dam have been successful in reducing the amount of sediment discharged into the creek and lake from the mudboils.
Other sources of sediment occur are road bank or stream bank erosion. Efforts are underway to stabilize high priority areas through various techniques.
Individuals can help by learning more about the lake, participating in Partnership activities aimed at involving the public, and practicing sound environmental measures in their homes and businesses in the lake's watershed. The Outreach Committee organizes the Partnership's Annual Progress Meetings each fall as well as a number of events throughout the year, designed to inform and involve the community. Details about these events are found on the web site.
Individuals can also contribute to the future of the lake by conserving water. It is estimated that 30-50% of the water supply used in the United States is wasted. Leaky pipes and faucets waste up to 30% of the nation's water (Source: WEF Water Sourcebook). Some is wasted through disposal with wastewater, and some is lost in the water pipe transport system before it gets to its distribution points. Fixing leaky faucets and other running fixtures in homes and businesses can prevent thousands of gallons of drinking water from unnecessary treatment at wastewater treatment facilities.
In Syracuse and Onondaga County, water conservation could assist in reducing the volume of water sent for treatment. Other water conservation measures include installation of water saving shower heads and low volume toilets.
Residents can reduce their use of pesticides and fertilizers on their lawns, help pick up litter and street debris, and properly dispose of waste oil and household hazardous materials. In the City, residents are reminded to keep leaves out of the streets and sewers by using paper bags for disposal of leaves in the fall. Leaves and bags are recycled into compost. In agricultural settings, individuals can adopt farming practices that reduce erosion and runoff containing fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste. See many more tips from Onondaga County.
Last update: Oct 2007