A mini Flashback – Onandaga Lake

I have a trip coming up where I’ll be spending a night in Syracuse New York.  Before carrying on to my next destination I’m planning on taking my dog for a walk at a nearby park which happens to be along the shore of Onandaga Lake.


It’s funny how our perceptions of a place don’t really change despite 19 years passing by.

As a teenager, I rowed for St. Catharines Rowing Club.  We generally were among the more competitive teams during that time periods (evidence: the dozens of people who graduated from the program who went to college on full rowing scholarships).  A fair bit of our summers were spent travelling to races near and semi-far.

One of the summer championships was held in Syracuse, New York on lake Onandaga.  I don’t remember how we placed in all the events.  I know we came second in the eights because it was one of the greatest disappointments in my young life.  But I don’t remember how we did in the fours or if I raced a pair or a double.

What I do remember is the dire warnings.  “This is the most polluted lake in America”.  “The bottom of this lake is covered in goo, do not touch the bottom.” “Don’t splash me, I don’t want a rash”.

To this day, nearly 20 years later, I’m still convinced that Onandaga Lake is a horribly polluted lake.  In preparation for going back there, I did a few google searches that confirmed that:

  1. Onandaga lake is still considered terribly polluted.
  2. In the early 1900s ice harvest from the lake was banned. Swimming was banned in the 1940s.
  3. The lake was polluted by sewage wastewater (20% of the lake’s inflow is now treated wastewater – the highest in the US) and by chemical pollution (Mercury contamination is a problem)
  4. Cleanup efforts since 2012 have actually been dredging polluted lake bottom sediment out of the lake.  Although 85% of the lake bottom will be untouched, efforts are being made.

So based on my research:  Yep back in the late 1990s, the warnings were accurate.  As for now, it’s probably safe enough to walk my dog along the shoreline, but I probably still wouldn’t want to flip a boat there.

Let’s hope that if my kids row in high school (>10 years from now) I won’t feel that way.