Syracuse Post Standard
By Dick Case
So, we’re cleaning Onondaga Lake. Again.
This gets to be an epic with thousands of years on it. First, natural forces had their way with the body of water. Then, man forced himself upon it.
We’re told this was an inland sea 10 million years ago. Our yards lay under hypersaline water that dropped many feet to a layer of nearly pure salt. Later this was buried under layers of sediment.
Yes, this is beginning to sound familiar. …
This salty bottom slept undiscovered until our region endured a glacier of 3,000-feet-thick ice that extended from what’s now Central New York to what’s now central Pennsylvania.
This extreme ice pack supposedly started to melt 12,000 years back. Its meltdown left us Onondaga Lake and its platform, a huge cake of salt.
No doubt, the first human eyes to see our lake were in the head of one of the Longhouse people, later to be named Iroquois. This will explain the modern Iroquois’, the Onondagas’, sense of ownership of a water field that from above looks oddly like a large moccasin.
There’s also no doubt the native people, settlers hereabouts before the white pioneers, had a hell of a lot more respect for their lake than the pioneers from Europe. Likely the native people spat out the salt when they drank the water that bubbled to the surface in springs around the lake. (No, the lake itself is not salt.)
White men turned the brine into an industry that surely made Syracuse a city, back in the day when salt had more clout than it does today. This also has to be the historic start of the mess of a lake that challenges us still.
We blame Solvay Process Co. and its descendant, Honeywell, for most of the lake’s ills. The Solvay brothers and their investors were drawn to the region by the availability of salt – later mined out of Tully Valley – as well as veins of limestone and the lake’s water. These were the ingredients of The Process, used to make soda ash.
Early on, our great-grandfathers turned their backs on the lake. The notion at large then seemed to be this: Dump our waste (industrial and human) into the water and it dissolves, it’s out of there.
Looks as if they were wrong.
In many ways, as it turned out. Instead of raising a city at the lake’s edge, and draining its swamp in the beginning, we located a mile south. Later, that ignored lakefront became a trash dump. Now it’s a shopping mall.
Also, we tampered more with the lake by draining it into a smaller pond more than 160 years ago, the better to accommodate a canal. We built an oil terminal at the south end, while trying to make resorts work along the shoreline to the north. We killed and mutated the fish and made the water stink and unhealthy to swim in.
One good thing is left from years of abuse: Onondaga Lake Park, which somehow got to be a lovely playground, despite what was going on in the water a few yards away.
Now we’re ready to kiss and make up to the lake. Again.
Years from now we’ll know if prayers and millions of dollars in remediation will give us back the lake we knew when the Onondagas settled into their permanent home back when.
Or will we learn all this retouching only makes it worse?