Onondaga Lake, New York, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - Mid-Atlantic - New York - Finger Lakes -

Long before its discovery by French explorers, Onondaga Lake was the location of the Iroquois Confederacy of tribes agreement. The ‘Great Peacemaker’ brought together the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations on the shores of Onondaga Lake. These warring nations accepted the legendary Peacemaker’s message of peace, laid down their weapons, and formed the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Since then, the lake has been a sacred place to Native Americans.

The discovery of brine seeps at the lake in 1654 by Jesuit missionaries quickly led to the land around Onondaga Lake becoming an industrial site and led to the founding of Syracuse near its southern shore. Salt production in the late 1700s led to the transfer of the land from the Onondaga Nation to salt producers. Waves of settlers quickly followed, with resorts and hotels being built along the lakeshore. Onondaga Lake was so popular that visitors traveled there from as far as New York City, and fish from the lake were served in restaurants all over New York. The threat of malaria in 1822 led to the lake level being lowered by dredging the outlet to the Seneca River, which drained the low-lying wetlands at the south end of the lake. That land is now a part of the City of Syracuse.

Former resorts, hotels and amusement parks along the shoreline have given way to development and large lakefront parks. A yacht club was first chartered on Onondaga Lake in 1886 and despite periods of dormancy over the years, still exists. A marina was created by the Onondaga County Planning Board in 1937, and the yacht club promptly rented space. Their clubhouse is nearby. The marina is now a part of the Onondaga Lake County Park which spans a large portion of the eastern shoreline. The yacht club is still in operation, sponsoring races, teaching youngsters to sail, and now providing manpower for lake clean-up efforts after 125 years.

The majority of the 12-miles of shoreline is publicly-owned and well-supplied with walking, hiking and biking trails, picnic areas and wildlife viewing. Power boating is popular. A diversity of bird species has been noted in recent years with sightings of bald eagles, great egrets, osprey, kingfishers, and numerous species of waterfowl. Some areas around the lake have become an overwintering spot for bald eagles. The county-owned marina rents rowboats and kayaks to visitors and is the natural location of festivals and outdoor events open to the public. One of the most spectacular events is the Lights on The Lake holiday season lighting tours along the eastern shoreline.

Onondaga Lake is a highly-productive fishery, with anglers catching bluegill, carp, channel catfish, gizzard shad, largemouth bass, pumpkinseed, smallmouth bass, white perch, yellow perch, black crappie, freshwater drum, long-nose gar, northern pike, rock bass, tiger musky, walleye, brown trout, green sunfish, lake sturgeon, rainbow trout, trout perch, white bass and a number of species of rough fish. Not all are legal to catch, and all specific fishing rules must be followed. Some fish such as the lake sturgeon, identified by tagging, have migrated upriver from Oneida Lake where they had been stocked as part of an effort to re-establish this endangered species. The variety and number of fish are surprising because as early as 1920, surveys showed only 12 species of fish remaining in Onondaga Lake. There are still fish advisories on consumption of fish taken from Onondaga Lake due to mercury pollution.

It isn’t apparent to the casual visitor that beautiful Onondaga Lake was previously considered the most polluted lake in the United States and was named a Superfund Site in 1994. Much of the pollution preceded the modern era and is not all due to the irresponsible actions of modern local businesses. Knowledge of how to maintain a clean watershed is a relatively new science, but most businesses and individuals have learned they must follow best practices to maintain a quality environment. Once clean-up efforts are complete, water quality is likely to remain good in the future.

Onondaga Lake received the waste products of most local industry in the 1800s, including a soda-ash plant which dumped huge amounts of waste directly into the lake. Other business interests also used the lake as a convenient disposal system, and the City of Syracuse added to the mix. The new Erie Canal, which ran through the heart of Syracuse, carried so much salt from the salt works that it was called the ‘salt canal’. The canal also encouraged new settlers to the area with the ease of transportation, leading to more industry and more municipal waste. Building the Erie Canal disrupted natural drainage along many tributaries, adding sediments and silt to the inflows. A group of natural ‘mud-boils’ a few miles away from Onondaga Lake also added to sedimentation of incoming streams.

By 1901, commercial ice cutting from Onondaga Lake ice was forbidden due to severe pollution. By 1940, swimming was banned, and in 1970 fishing was prohibited. The mercury byproducts of chloride production were dumped directly into the lake until 1986 when the production was stopped. The City of Syracuse was a major source of phosphorus as municipal sewage was dumped directly into the lake for many years with little or no treatment. An improved, sanitary sewer and storm water overflow system, although considered state-of-the-art and good practice when built, allowed untreated water to enter the lake as overflow during heavy rains. Although the sewage system has been upgraded, the treatment plant still supplies over 20% of the daily inflow to the lake, although it is now treated wastewater.

Surprisingly, through all of this, Onondaga Lake is rapidly getting cleaner. Water quality has improved considerably since the turn of the last century. The final leg of the clean-up is now underway; a massive dredging effort has begun to suction polluted sediments from the lakebed which is piped overland four miles to a holding facility where water is drained out of the sludge and returned to the local water table. A sealing layer of clay and clean sand is being laid down on the remaining sediments to seal them from the water. Changes to disposal and waste treatment have improved the condition of treated water returning to the lake. Industry near the shoreline helps with clean-up and works with officials and the interested lake association to mitigate damage.

It is expected that within a few years, Onondaga Lake will be cleaner than it has been for generations and fully clean enough to encourage swimming and other water contact sports. This is proof positive that modern practices can do wonders with polluted watersheds, regardless of the length of time the waterway has been abused. Meanwhile, the park system is pleased to welcome over a million visitors each year to enjoy cooling lake breezes, hike the trails and visit historical sites in the area. While at the park, visitors can take the self-guided tour of the Salt Museum, enjoy the butterfly garden, archery range, skate park, dog park, picnic areas and playgrounds. There is no camping at the park, but camping is available not far away at the Oneida Lake County Park.

The City of Liverpool on the eastern shoreline offers most services visitors would want, and the City of Syracuse to the south has plenty of entertaining historical and cultural locations to visit, plus great dining and nightlife. One not-to-be-missed stop in Syracuse is the Erie Canal Museum in the only remaining Erie Canal weigh-lock building. The building once stood alongside the canal. Although much of the canal is now filled in locally, the museum holds plenty of pictures and the history of the area and the Erie Canal’s importance in Syracuse’s growth. visitors can also arrange for authentic canal boat tours of various lengths in the area.

All sorts of lodgings are available near Syracuse; hotels and motels are convenient and offer all services, while a number of local bed-and-breakfasts and quaint inns offer a historical perspective within period settings. Although there are almost no lakefront properties on the lake, a few properties exist looking across a narrow strip of public frontage. These include new townhomes and luxury homes with beautiful lake views. Now is the time to visit Onondaga Lake and enjoy its beauty and amenities. Lake clean-up is almost complete; come celebrate its rebirth.

Things to do at Onondaga Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Kayaking
  • Camping
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • Museum
  • Playground
  • Amusement Park

Fish species found at Onondaga Lake

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Black Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Brown Trout
  • Carp
  • Catfish
  • Channel Catfish
  • Crappie
  • Freshwater Drum
  • Gar
  • Gizzard Shad
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Northern Pike
  • Perch
  • Pike
  • Pumpkinseed
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Shad
  • Smallmouth Bass
  • Sturgeon
  • Sunfish
  • Tiger Muskellunge
  • Trout
  • Walleye
  • White Bass
  • White Perch
  • Yellow Perch

Onondaga Lake Photo Gallery

Onondaga Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 2,965 acres

Shoreline Length: 12 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 370 feet

Maximum Depth: 63 feet

Drainage Area: 248 sq. miles

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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