A clean lake reflects well on all of us.


Human Use of Onondaga Lake

Humans appeared in the land that is now Onondaga County in 8000 BC, following the retreat of the last glaciers. Before the American Revolution, the hills surrounding Onondaga Lake were the center of the Iroquois Confederacy. Onondaga Lake was an important waterway for the Onondaga Indians, one of the six tribes of the Confederacy.

In 1654, the Onondagas revealed the presence of salt springs on the shores of the lake to the French. Commercial salt production on the lakeshore began in 1793. During the late 17th and early 18th century, European settlers, mostly trappers and traders, followed Jesuit missionaries and French explorers into the Syracuse area. The Lake and its related river systems served as transportation routes into this area of the country.

Industry, population, and pollution increased in the 19th and 20th centuries. Onondaga Lake's water quality has improved significantly in the early 21st century, and new uses for the Lake and its shore are being planned and built. (See Timeline at bottom of this page.)

Salt Industry

Salt wells near Onondaga Lake, circa 1900 (Courtesy of Vintage Views)

After the completion of the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, the interior of upstate New York was opened to increased European settlement. The Erie Canal was known as "the ditch that salt built" because salt was a major cargo transported on the canal. Syracuse is still often called "Salt City." Some were attracted to Syracuse by its newly developing salt industry and the related packaging and shipping of the salt to other areas of the country.

By 1822, the Lake's water level was lowered after its outlet to the Seneca River was dredged, and the low lying swampy area in what is now the northern end of downtown Syracuse was drained. This acton was effective in greatly reducing the threat of malaria to the residents of the growing city.


People traveled from as far as New York City to enjoy Onondaga Lake. Several hotels were constructed on the banks of the lake so that visitors would have a place to stay. It was regarded by many as an extravagant resort area.

Yacht club on Onondaga Lake, circa 1900 (courtesy Vintage Views)

By the turn of the 20th century, the shoreline of Onondaga Lake was dotted with major tourist attractions including hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. Onondaga Lake fish were served at restaurants around the state. One of the large amusement areas was the “Iron Pier” resort which occupied the lake shoreline near the present site of the Carousel Center shopping mall. In addition to a variety of recreational activities featured at the Iron Pier's 600-ft resort pavilion, steamboat services were provided to other resorts around the Lake.

Population & Industry

Solvay Process Works, circa 1900 (courtesy Vintage Views)

As Syracuse grew, the Lake's western shoreline became increasingly industrialized because of the availability of natural resources and transportation routes. The presence of salt brine and limestone in abundance in the area were the key raw materials needed for the production of soda ash by the Solvay Process Company (which would later become Allied Chemical, Allied-Signal Inc., and now Honeywell). In 1884, the Solvay Process Company began production of soda ash, and in 1918 it began production of organic chemicals.

Sewage disposal and industrial discharges into the lake also increased during this time. As a result, the quality of the water deteriorated.

Although steps were taken to address sewage-related problems in Onondaga Creek and Harbor Brook, pollution of the lake from municipal as well as industrial sources led to reduced use of the lake for recreation. With industries blossoming before the establishment of any modern day environmental laws, the lake was used as a depository for all kinds of industrial waste including mercury.

By 1940, the lake was declared unsafe for swimming. In the 1960s, Syracuse had ninety points where sewage could overflow and reach Onondaga Creek, Harbor Brook, or Ley Creek. The City of Syracuse owned and maintained the sewerage system. The City did not eliminate any of the overflows of the combined sewers. Onondaga County began to take ownership of the combined trunk sewers and two interceptor sewer lines in the 1960s and ’70s. It immediately began making improvements. By 1985, it had closed permanently about forty overflow points.

In the 1970s, fishing was banned on the Lake. In the mid-1980s, Allied-Signal closed its operations on the Lake's west shore and halted a significant source of pollution.

The Onondaga Creekwalk Trail in Franklin Square

In 1990, a major retail shopping complex opened on the south end of the lake, and it was expanded in 2009. Many civic and business leaders see this occurrence as the beginning of like development in the area. To that end, the City of Syracuse has adopted a master plan for the lakefront area. This plan envisions redevelopment of 800 acres with office complexes, housing units, and tourism shops. A walking path along Onondaga Creek is also being developed, the Onondaga Creekwalk Trail. When complete, the Trail will extend from Armory Square downtown to Onondaga Lake.

Improving Water Quality

In 1989, a Judgment on Consent settled 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 NYSDEC and 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 on January 11, 1996.

Numerous discussions and negotiations took place with regard to the proposed MCP. 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 Onondaga County. The provisions of the ACJ resolved several controversies that grew from the 1989 Consent Decree, and it supplants the MCP.

The ACJ reflects, to a large extent, the objectives established by a policy resolution passed by the Onondaga County Legislature in 1995 (Resolution 95-158) which was intended to guide negotiators in developing the Municipal Compliance Plan. The principles outlined in the policy resolution called for a plan based on the "phased implementation" of upgrades to Metro and CSOs, and the measurement of water quality improvements to the lake resulting from each phase of construction.