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High Profile Swim in Onondaga Lake Shows Promise of Lake's Future

Elana Sukert/WAER News

  Local dignitaries and residents took the plunge on Wednesday into the warm waters of Onondaga Lake. What was once considered one of the most polluted lakes in the nation, now meets the official standards for being swimmable. 

It was a celebration on the lake as spectators counted down before everyone took the jump-in. Among the swimmers was former Onondaga County Executive Nick Pirro who was able to fulfill his 28 year promise to the community.

During his last day in office New York State Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, Joe Martens  joined the celebration…but says the Onondaga Lake success story isn’t completed.

Credit Elana Sukert/WAER News
People who went for the swim stayed in the water for as long as 10 minutes, playing with beach balls and splashing around.

“There is still work to be done.  The water quality,  we hope will continue to improve.  But today, in the northern two-thirds of the lake it meets all the standards that the State Department of Health and the County Department of Health say is necessary to be safe  for people to swim in it.  So this was really a celebration of how far we’ve come on Onondaga Lake and how much of an opportunity this lake is for the entire region.”

Commissioner Martens sees the Syracuse economy benefiting from the lake’s rebirth.

“Everybody wants to be on or near the water and that certainly wasn’t true 40 years ago.  It reeked frankly.   It is going to be an economic driver, it already is.  We have an amphitheater going up across the lake; the Inner Harbor is being redeveloped.  I just think it means all good things; we have a trail running along the lake that people would not be attracted to if it wasn’t an attractive lake.  So we have just come light years here in Central New York and it’s great news.” 

County Legislature Chair Ryan McMahon went swimming the day before. He agrees the lake needs more planning for the future.

Credit Elana Sukert/WAER News
A crowd of several dozen line up ready to jump in Onondaga lake from boats. There's no beach on the lake, but it is legal to swim off a boat or kayak.

“I see the lake being a recreational sporting mecca, with rowing and kayaking and paddle boarding and canoeing.  If that’s the vision we want to go on, what role does a beach play.  But I think what yesterday was about was showing people that in Willow Bay it is safe to swim.  If you’re on your boat or your kayak and you fall in the water, don’t worry about it.  Enjoy the water and work on your breast stroke.”

Because there are no beaches on Onondaga Lake it is prohibited to swim from shore, but swimmers can get in the water from a boat in the Northern sections of the lake.  

Geddes Town Supervisor Manny Falcone tells WAER's Elana Sukert how a cleaner lake enhances his area.

However, not everyone supported the swim.  Members of the Onondaga Nation Youth Group protested.  Nation leaders and clan mothers say it’s deflecting attention from toxic materials which still exist in the lake.  

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.