The waste in our water

The “Save the Rain” campaign joins the clean-up effort to stop the flow of sewage into Onondaga Lake.

Chris Gandino grabbed a quillback from out of a tank, slipped his finger between its lips and peered into the fish’s mouth. “I’m checking him for tumors and lesions,” Gandino said as the fish flopped from side to side in his hand. 

Gandino, who has worked at Onondaga County fisheries since 1987, sees fewer lesions these days.

“When I started 20 years ago you’d go out on the lake and there wouldn’t be anyone, because there weren’t any fish,” he said. “Now the fish are healthier. We’ve got bass tournaments, fishing activities and overall the lake’s looking a lot better.”

More than three decades

The Onondaga Lake clean-up project launched in the 1970s after a federal court ordered the county to stop water contaminated with sewage from flowing into the lake. Saturday, Sept. 26, marked the five-year anniversary of the phosphorus removal program and the official launch of County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s “Save the Rain” campaign.

In the early 1990s experts called Onondaga Lake one of the dirtiest fresh water bodies in the country, Gandino said. Pollution came mostly from the county’s combined sewer system, which collects sewage and storm water runoff in a single piping system. Past improper treatment of industrial waste also contributed to the pollution. 

“For 100-plus years, everything collected from the road and the city was just dumped into the lake,” Gandino said.

Dave Snyder (left), Chris Gandino (top), and Alex Studdert take measurements and check for tumors and lesions from a small sample of juvenile fish including bluegill, pumkinseed, largemouth bass and yellow pertch in the Onondaga Lake Marina Basin Tuesday. (Photo: Matthew Ziegler)

The $163.2 million treatment plant purifies 65 million gallons of water per day and has decreased phosphorus levels by 80% in the past five years. But even a light rainstorm can overwhelm the system to the point where it can only treat 50% of the water that comes in. Storm water can carry anything from raw sewage to car drippings such as antifreeze, pesticides and other chemicals with it into the lake.

“One little rainstorm or one harsh melt in the early spring season, and we’re looking at an overflow,” said Dan Kelly, who has worked in the treatment plant for 32 years.

Plans for change

Expanding the treatment plant or getting rid of the existing combined sewer system could solve the problem. But it would cost taxpayers big bucks said James Corbett, chairman of Onondaga County’s Ways and Means Committee. He’s currently working on a bill to remove the combined water system.

“The quality of our water is paramount. Ultimately it’s just better for everyone,” Corbett said.  “But people don’t want to pay for it.”

County Executive Mahoney aims to provide a cost and energy efficient alternative with “Save the Rain.” The program, which started in 2009, is back this year with a public relations campaign, community outreach team and a plan to solve the county’s storm water problem by using green technologies to remove rainwater from the sewer system.

 “It’s all about protecting our water,” said Mahoney, “and this is a much more beautiful way to handle the rain than building sewage treatment plants in people’s neighborhoods.” 

The county is under federal order to remove an ambitious 250 million gallons of water a year from the sewers by 2018, Mahoney said.  

Public involvement is vital in that task, Mahoney said.

Who is involved 

Save the Rain partnered with Syracuse University’s Environmental Finance Center to lead public outreach workshops.  “The key is telling people concretely what they can do to help and the hope is that they’ll teach other people within their neighborhoods what they’ve learned,” said Mark Lichtenstein, the Environmental Finance Center’s principal investigator.

SUNY ESF, Onondaga Environmental Institute, Baltimore Woods Nature Center and the Onondaga Earth Corps, will help bring programming to 2,000 students in Syracuse city schools and specific workshops to people and professionals in the community.

“We’re going to have contractors talk about how to build rain barrels, rain gardens or green roofs. Road contractors will go over the details of how to put in permeable pavements. We want landscape architects, businesses, churches and homeowners to know what technologies are available and accessible,” Lichtenstein said.

The campaign also consists of more than 50 green infrastructure projects including a $1.2 million green roof for the OnCenter, which would be one of the largest in the northeast, a $2 million wetland restoration project at Harbor Brook and $200,000 in green renovation at Edwin Weeks Elementary School.

Need for clean water

One of the most alarming realities for Lichtenstein is the inter-connectedness of local waters and the impact seemingly isolated pollution can have. Onondaga Lake is part of the Oswego river watershed, which funnels into lake Ontario — the primary water source for Onondaga County.

“So here we are putting waste water eventually into our drinking water,” Lichtenstein said. “That’s something people should know.”

Executive Mahoney echoed Lichtenstein’s push for efforts at the individual as well as group level.

“People might say, ‘what’s my little effort going to do?’ Well, just look at the success of recycling in Central New York,” Mahoney said, “It starts in an individual home, and then every home is doing it.”

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