In Depth: Restoration of Onondaga Lake's Wetlands Playing Key Role in Recovery

Apr 14, 2015

Much of the focus of the Onondaga Lake clean-up project has been on the lake itself with dredging completed last fall and capping operations set to begin this spring.  But there’s also been an effort to clean and restore  44 acres of contaminated  wetlands in the lake’s watershed.  This report takes a closer look at what’s being done…and the wetlands' role in the return of the lake’s ecology. It’s a chilly, early spring day, and we’ve pulled up to where Geddes Brook joins Nine Mile Creek, just across the 695 freeway from the state fairgrounds.  

The wetlands earlier this spring where Geddes Brook, left, and Nine Mile Creek, right converge.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News
  SUNY ESF Professor and Chair of Environmental and Forest Biology Don Leopold says the now meandering brook didn’t always look like this.  Before, it resembled more of a ditch surrounded by a single invasive plant.

 "I walked in here before any of this construction, I remember walking on a berm, and it was phragmites...the common reed on both sides.  A straight channel.  This doesn't look like the same state.  It looks entirely like we're in a different country."

 John McAuliffe is Honeywell’s Syracuse program director for the company’s $451 million clean-up project. 

  "You can kind of see the success of the wetlands from runoff and high water.  You can see the areas that are frozen over here to the left and to the right.  So, that's functioned as designed.  When Nine Mile Creek came up, when Geddes Brook came up, it overflowed into that area, and it's holding the water now, so it's functioning as a wetland."

 Professor Don Leopold says the winding brook serves an ecological function. 

"It allows the water to be in contact with the land more, so the land and the micro-organisms can process the things that are in the water that we want processed.  Wetlands in general are very efficient, taking up nutrients, taking up materials, good and bad."

 More than 320,000 plants, shrubs, and trees encompassing 250 native species have been planted in the restored areas so far.  The goal is 1.1 million plantings.  But how did the scientists know what would thrive, let alone survive the conditions and competition from invasive species?  After all, it’s been most of a lifetime since anyone has seen the lake and its habitat anywhere near their natural state after decades of pollution and neglect.  Leopold says the Syracuse area is lucky to have a connection to early missionaries, settlers, and Native American culture. 

"Some botanists came here in the early 1800's, and the records for the plant species in the natural communities is pretty extraordinary.  We look at a lot of that, so we find out we know exactly what types of plants were here, pretty comprehensive list.  So the next part is, well, how do you get them back.  Those of us who study these things all of our lives know that if you create certain  water conditions, certain substrate conditions, certain fertility levels, that there's an array of species that you are going to promote, and there's an array of species that don't have a chance."

 Leopold says they also understand the flood tolerances of the plants so they can survive weeks of high water from melting snow and spring rains.  He says that's key to the long-term sustainability of the plantings so they don't have to step in and manage the wetlands.  

 "We don't fertilize, we don't do weed control.  The system is now on its way towards a very positive trajectory.  No different than this Geddes Brook project; to see where it is in just 2 to 3 years and to see where it's going.  It's really one of the more beautiful wetlands in Central New York right now.  And it's very functional."

 Honeywell’s John McAuliffe says none of the restoration would be possible without the hundreds of volunteers with the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps that have taken an interest in reclaiming the lake.

 Diane Haun is a retired Marcellus school teacher living in Camillus.  She and her husband Peter first became interested in lake habitat restoration effort when engineers and other workers involved in the clean-up stopped at their ice cream shop on Milton Avenue.  Since then, the Hauns have taken part in events from planting to identifying birds and other wildlife.

 "In a way, I feel a little bit responsible for things that happened at the lake, even though I had no say or part in it...I was pretty much a child.  But, to think we had such a beautiful area here, and to see that it's been  destroyed is so heartbreaking."

 Haun is pleased that Honeywell and its partners are incorporating volunteers, and has been delighted to see so many others join in.  Honeywell's John McAuliffe couldn't be happier with the response.

 "It's been really neat, because folks that come out get to talk to our technical experts, and learn about the watershed, learn about why these plants are being planted.  So, they planted  4,500 plants over the last two years.  It's really exciting to see those people come out and want to be watershed stewards."

 Chris Lajewski  peers through a scope at the Onondaga Lake visitors center off Interstate 690.  

The southern end of Onondaga Lake earlier this spring near I-690, where waterfowl were gathering.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

 "I'm seeing a lot of redheads, couple of canvasback, there's ring-necked ducks, too.  Has to be hundreds of them out there."

 The Director of the Montezuma Audubon Center then zooms in across the lake to Destiny USA and the Metro Sewage Treatment Plant, where bald eagles are known to hang out.

 "A lot of times we see those eagles sitting in the trees, oh, and I see a couple right now.  A couple of adults with white heads, white tails.  I also see some juvenile bald eagles in those trees."

 Lajewski says it’s not uncommon to see 20 to 40 bald eagles wintering on Onondaga Lake these days.  That hasn’t always been the case.

 "If the trees are not here, if the wetlands are not in abundance and providing the critical habitat for these birds, then they won't be here.  And that's what we were seeing over the last 100 years.  Birds and other wildlife were not flocking to this wonderful resource."

 Now, he says, there’s been what he calls a tremendous turnaround, and the birds have responded.

 "We're now seeing a flourishing habitat, abundant native vegetation, and birds and other wildlife are flocking back in to take up residence there.  Tremendous success story."

At the Onondaga Lake Visitors Center.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

 But Lajewski says Onondaga Lake is more than a random place for birds and waterfowl to roost.  The area actually plays a significant role in the Atlantic Flyway.

 "This expressway up in the sky that birds travel during the migration season, both spring and fall.   Millions of birds use that flyway, and Onondaga Lake sits notably on that flyway."

 Lajewski says there’s no doubt birds and other wildlife used the lake and its wetlands before people and industry moved in and altered the habitat.   That’s why the effort to restore this environment to a more natural state is so essential.  Plants and animals are now returning, but the area is also important to residents living nearby. Some have questioned the effectiveness of dredging the lake bottom of contaminants, and pumping the material four miles away to a disposal site in Camillus.  Dozens of neighbors in the area have filed a lawsuit against Honeywell claiming serious illness from mercury and other chemicals that may have leaked from the site.  The EPA is scheduled to evaluate the dredging and disposal, as well as the habitat restoration as part of a five-year review.  The report is expected by late August.   Volunteer Diane Haun hopes Honeywell and its partners have been genuine in their efforts.

 "Are they really concerned about the lake and the environment, and leaving the lake a beautiful place for the next several generations.  I think when there's problems to try and be honest with the public, and I think that will be the biggest way to rebuild faith.  Right now, everyone I've spoken to, I feel like they're looking at the environment for the future.  So I'm really hopeful that that's the case."

 SUNY ESF Professor Don Leopold feels this project is unique and that everyone involved truly cares about the outcome.

 "What we're trying to do is make sure people understand that this is our lake.  That's why I think this project's been so successful is that it's unlike a lot of projects where people come in from regions come in from regions away, and then they try to fix something, there's nothing at stake, they just meet the contract and they leave.  But we're all here, we're all based here.  And the fact that you can't use this resource to the extent that you can in other places...what a shame.  So, that's changing."

Montezuma Audubon Center Director Chris Lajewski:

 "It's amazing to thing that just 40 years ago, there were probably no bald eagles here at the lake.  But because of active conservation and restoration work like we're doing here on Onondaga Lake, the bald eagle now soars high over the lake, sits perched in the trees, hunts in the wetlands, so we can take pride in knowing that we have made a difference, Onondaga Lake is coming back to life."

Director of the Montezuma Audubon Center Chris Lajewski checks out the waterfowl and eagles on Onondaga Lake.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

 Onondaga Conservation Corps Volunteer Diane Haun:

 "It's been such a sad story for so long that I think people maybe are a little bit skeptical about what's going to happen in the future.  But as much as they're skeptical, I believe they're also very hopeful that once this is begun, if we're lucky enough, blessed enough, to get that lake even back to some of its former beauty and the way we could use the lake, that would be just a wonderful thing."


 Audubon New York and the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps are hosting a photo exhibit of images captured by photographers of birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife in their natural habitat around the lake.  It takes place Saturday April 25th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  and Sunday April 26th from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Onondaga Lake Visitors center off I-690.