Onondaga Lake and Save The Rain

By Jack Zalewski

“The “Save the Rain” program is a comprehensive stormwater management plan intended to reduce pollution to Onondaga Lake and to its tributaries. During wet weather events, such as snow and rain, stormwater flows into the local sewer system causing heavy flow periods that can overload the systems (Save The Rain, 2017). When water is not appreciated, environmental disasters such as Onondaga Lake, in Syracuse, New York, a place near which I call home, have the potential to happen.

Onondaga Lake was once the hub of Central New York’s tourism. The lake was part of the Erie Canal, which allowed Central New York to be opened to the rest of the state (DEC Onondaga Lake Superfund Site, 2017). The shorelines of Onondaga Lake are a huge hub for tourism, with hotels, restaurants, and even a couple of amusement parks. The “boom” of the city’s population and tourism, in the late 1800’s to early 1900s, caused an increase of pollution and much of that was dumped in the lake (DEC Onondaga Lake Superfund Site, 2017).

Onondaga Lake lies right near Syracuse, New York, and was hailed as being the most polluted lake in America in the early 2000s (Chanatry, 2012). The pollution of the lake was the result of years of raw and partially treated sewage from the surrounding areas and over a century of industrial dumping into the lake. For Onondaga Lake, a much larger clean-up effort that has been in the works for years.

Steve Effler, the founder of Upstate Freshwater Institute, said, “The lake (smelled) so bad (from the pollution) that you had to roll the windows up” (Chanatry, 2012). In the 1940’s swimming was banned, and in 1972, fishing was banned as well, due to high levels of mercury, not that there were that many fish by that point (Chanatry, 2012). Allied Chemicals was a large polluter of Onondaga Lake and they were placed with the responsibility of cleaning up the lake.

In 1994, Onondaga Lake was named a Superfund site, which is any land that has been affected by hazardous waste and poses a potential threat to human health and/or the environment (DEC Onondaga Lake Superfund Site, 2017). The Superfund site includes the lake bottom and tributaries around the lake that were contaminated by it (DEC Onondaga Lake Superfund Site, 2017). New York has worked with Honeywell, the successor to Allied Chemicals, in their clean-up of the lake. Dozens of pounds of mercury were taken up from parts of the lake, thanks to a billion-dollar clean-up effort (Chanatry, 2012).

The clean-up project concluded in 2010, but it still left over 85% of the lake bottom untouched (Chanatry, 2012). Despite the lake not being fully cleaned, it has allowed for over 60 species of fish to survive in the waters and get the fishing ban lifted (Chanatry, 2012). Onondaga has been attempting to fix their water infrastructure, not only through the lake but also through capturing rainwater.

In the last 10 years, the clean-up for Onondaga Lake effort has improved the water quality and increased the diversity and number of fish. Over $173 million was committed to upgrading the Metropolitan wastewater treatment facility plant to filter out contaminants such as phosphorus and ammonia (Save The Rain, 2017).

“Save the Rain” has been active in countless projects since their creation, and the more the program builds, the better our world is for it. The program’s main goal is to improve the environment and help Onondaga Lake by reducing the amount of storm runoff that flows directly into the sanitary sewer system (Save The Rain, 2017).

Snow and rain events can lead to an overflow of polluted sewage and stormwater into the Lake. They have used seven different types of green solutions throughout the county which include rain gardens, green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement, rain barrel, and cistern (Save The Rain, 2017).

Each solution is extremely vital to the fragile ecosystem that has been created around Onondaga Lake. The rain gardens are a sunken garden designed to absorb rainwater from impervious areas such as roofs, driveways, walkways, and compact lawns (Save The Rain, 2017). These gardens collect a lot of water that would otherwise runoff. Another solution is green roofs, which are almost exactly what they sound like, as they are a roof completely covered with vegetation and soil, planted over a waterproof membrane (Save The Rain, 2017).

Green roofs, while making use of the rain water, also reduce temperature, save energy, and filter out pollutants before the water is released back into the atmosphere. Another one is bioswales, which is a wide, shallow channel with a dense stand of vegetation covering the side slopes and bottom (Save The Rain, 2017). This reduces the velocity of runoff and maximizes the potential for the water to be absorbed. Like that way of maximizing water use, a cistern is a receptacle for holding liquids, like rainwater, in the hopes of storing it in bulk to be used (Save The Rain, 2017).

Rain barrels are large water tanks used to collect and store rainwater, like cisterns, but these are above ground (Save The Rain, 2017). The use of a rain barrel reduces the amount of stormwater from roofs that runs off into the lawns or sewer system (Save The Rain, 2017). SUNY ESF Residence Hall, Centennial Hall, has implemented green infrastructure components, which captures over 60,000 gallons of water each year (Save The Rain, 2017).

“Save the Rain” also converts previously empty, unusable public spaces, into areas of which can support plant life. The four lots they have worked on collect over half a million gallons of water per year (Save The Rain, 2017). The program also works with the county to provide free rain barrels to homeowners of the City of Syracuse, and it has provided around 1,800 rain barrels (Save The Rain, 2017). Another project it does is tree planting throughout the city of Syracuse.

Trees are important to “Save the Rain” as they soak up stormwater and use the rain to feed their root system. Trees also slow the absorption of water and allow more soil to become completely saturated.

Syracuse could have given up on Onondaga Lake and continued to let it be the “Most Polluted Lake In America,” but a group of people decided something had to be done. The program is a small effort, that if continued and expanded, can have lasting impacts on people all over the world. “Save The Rain” has their roots dug deep into the greater Syracuse area and for me, it very rewarding seeing how willing and excited people are to participate in this program.  


Works Cited

- Chanatry, David. "America's 'Most Polluted' Lake Finally Comes Clean." NPR. NPR, 31 July 2012. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/07/31/157413747/americas-most-polluted-lake-finally-comes-clean.

- "Department of Environmental Conservation." Onondaga Lake Superfund Site - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. New York State, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. Retrieved from http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/8668.html.

- “Save The Rain.” Save The Rain. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. Retrieved from http://savetherain.us.




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