Onondaga Nation Communications Newsletter
Last year, we learned that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) removed Onondaga Creek and the other tributaries to Onondaga Lake from their list of “impaired waterbodies”. Those of us who have been paying attention to water quality locally were shocked – what could they be thinking? The tributaries are far from healthy… not only can you not drink the water or eat the fish, but in many places (such as Onondaga Creek through the City of Syracuse) it’s a hazard to your health just to be in contact with the water! Apparently, the bureaucrats had decided that because Onondaga Lake was already on the list, they could overlook the tributaries.
The Onondaga Nation pointed out that this made no sense, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the NYSDEC listened and put the tributaries back on the list, but noted that they didn’t have enough data to justify doing so. Again, we were shocked – with all of the studies done by the County, Upstate Freshwater Institute, and students and professors at SU and SUNY-ESF, there wasn’t enough data? The reality of the situation is, the NYSDEC has been so underfunded that they have very limited ability to search out sources of data and rely instead on what people, such as the County, give them. We realized that again we would have to do their work for them.
The Onondaga Environmental Institute, who is also working on the Onondaga Creek Revitalization Plan, came to the rescue. At the Nation’s request, they focused their scientists’ time and attention over the past eight months on reviewing and summarizing existing water quality data and doing extra field sampling along Onondaga Creek, to show the State without a doubt that the tributaries are not healthy and need our help and attention.
In the course of OEI’s fieldwork, they discovered at least one illegal discharge into Onondaga Creek, and that has now been stopped. Soapy water stinking of sour milk was found coming out of a pipe near Byrne Dairy’s plant on the Southside. This was reported to the NYSDEC, who then investigated and discovered that Byrne Dairy’s truck washing operations were connected wrong and discharging into a pipe that led straight to the creek. Byrne Dairy quickly agreed to fix this problem and now the waste water flows into the sewage system for proper treatment, instead of polluting Onondaga Creek.
Because OEI was already doing fieldwork, they were also able to quickly respond last summer when the Nation was notified of a septic leak along Kennedy Creek, a tributary of Hemlock Creek upstream of the Nation. They verified that no sewage from that leak was affecting the creek. They did, however, discover elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria (human and animal waste) in Hemlock Creek at Quarry Road, and even more so upstream at Webb Road. Of even greater concern were the extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria found in Onondaga Creek in the Tully Valley after a summer rainfall. The sources of this pollution are still unknown, although the manure spreading practices of large farms within the watershed are a possible source.
OEI submitted their 700-page Onondaga Lake Tributary Assessment to the NYSDEC on February 26th and provided three copies to the Communications Office. The State is currently reviewing the data, and not only ensuring the tributaries remain listed as impaired water bodies but also are planning for future studies to identify sources of pollution along Onondaga Creek.