Central New York, Community, Environment, Syracuse

CNY’s ‘Most Polluted Lake In America’ Could Soon Be Transformed Into A Public Beach

Almost $1 billion was invested into the Onondaga Lake cleanup, and now the county wants to create a public bathing area in Onondaga Lake Park so people could finally get to enjoy the multi-million dollar investment. (c) 2018 Giulia Milana

Video transcript: Milana_OnondagaLakeBeach_23Apr18

By Giulia Milana LIVERPOOL, N.Y. (NCC News) Formerly known as the “most polluted lake in America,” Onondaga Lake is now the cleanest it has been in over 100 years, and the county wants to take advantage of that.

A feasibility study is scheduled to begin this spring to determine the practicality of adding a beach to Onondaga Lake. It will determine everything from what the market would be for a beach in Onondaga County, to how many beaches could be in a certain mileage, to the infrastructure necessary, to the minute details like the type of sand that would be brought in.

“At the end, they are going to give us a feasible option,” said Travis Glazier, the Director of the Onondaga County Office of the Environment. “They’re going to then provide a design, which is construction ready, so that the county can then take a look and say, ‘Is this within our appetite to pay for to make this a possibility?”

Swimming in Onondaga Lake was prohibited in 1940 after sewage waste and industrial pollution contaminated the waters, causing serious health threats.

“There was a time when you couldn’t go close to the lake because it smelled so bad,” Glazier said. “Algae was dying and washing up on the shore. It rotted and smelled like sewage, it was disgusting. There were chemical smells coming over from Honeywell. The water was clearly compromised.”

In 1988, The Atlantic States Legal Foundation (ASLF) filed a lawsuit calling for the end of waste violations in Onondaga Lake. ASLF and Onondaga County agreed to the Amended Consent Judgement, requiring an improvement in wastewater collection and compliance with the Clean Water Act.

“We have since had about $750 million worth of improvements to Onondaga County’s wastewater treatment,” Glazier said.  “The waters of Onondaga Lake which are eligible to host a public bathing area have been continually above the standards for an open beach for the better part of 10 years.”

Some significant achievements of the Onondaga Lake cleanup plan include:

  • 2.2 million cubic yards of material was removed from the lake
  • 475 acres of lake bottom was capped with more than 3 million cubic yards of natural material creating a new, clean lake bottom.
  • A 1.5 mile underground barrier intercepts contaminated groundwater from former factory sites so it can be treated to meet DEC standards before it it returned to the lake.
  • More than 250 wildlife species were identified in restored areas.

The money spent on the cleanup was all public money, and Glazier said that he is determined to create a public bathing area so people could finally get to enjoy their multi-million dollar investment.

“It’s unique to have an urban lake like this and to have a water body that is so close and easy to get to,” Glazier said. “Open water swimming is not only a great way for people to connect with the environment, but under the Clean Water Act, we have a right to do that.”


Willow Bay is one of Onondaga Lake Park's most popular spots and is one of the locations that could be turned into a beach in the near future. (c) 2018 Giulia Milana