Onondaga Creek

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Long Term Monitoring of Onondaga Creek

            Project Watershed volunteers have monitored water quality conditions in Onondaga Creek at a number of locations from the Creek headwaters near Route 80 along Tully Farms Road all the way down to Dickerson Street near downtown Syracuse over the past two decades. We have been able to maintain records of our stream monitoring results thanks to a database developed with assistance from Syracuse University and our own CNY Chapter database manager, Donald Gates.  Don Gates developed the Filemaker Pro database we are currently using, available on the web at www.cnyiwla.org.

            Project managers and coordinators for the Project Watershed program since 1994 have included William ‘Bill’ Legg, former science program director at Liverpool High School, Mat Webber, our current CNY Chapter president, and Les Monostory, retired environmental planner with the Onondaga County Health Department and the County’s Environmental Management Council.

            Our stream survey sites along Onondaga Creek include the following:

a) West Branch of Onondaga Creek by Route 80 bridge, near the hamlet of South Onondaga.  Data collected between 1998 - 2010.

b) Tully Farms Road near Solvay Road, Town of Lafayette.  Data collected between 2000 - 2011, but focused on 2003-2004 data for stream headwaters.

c) Tully Farms Road by Bear Mountain Road, Town of LaFayette. Data collected between 1999 - 2008.

d) Dorwin Avenue Bridge Site, along the Syracuse-Nedrow community line. Data collected between 2003 - 2020.

e) Kirk Park Site,  adjacent to Onondaga Creek Blvd., off South Avenue in Syracuse. Data collected between 2004 - 2015.

f) Dickerson Street Bridge Site, near Downtown Syracuse. Data collected between 2009 - 2012.


Biological (S.O.S.) and Chemical Water Quality Ratings

            The biological monitoring data forms developed for the IWLA Save Our Streams program [see chart 1] categorize aquatic insects and crustaceans into three general categories according to each organism’s sensitivity to pollution.

The SENSITIVE category includes insects like mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies.

The LESS SENSITIVE category includes crayfish, scuds, dragonflies and damselflies.

The TOLERANT category includes midge flies, black flies and leeches.

            Water quality ratings for the biological data forms are based on the number of organisms identified in the Sensitive, Less Sensitive and Tolerant categories multiplied by 3, 2 and 1 to develop a stream index value.  The S.O.S. water quality ratings based on a total index value result in grades of Excellent (>22), Good (17-22), Fair (11-16), and Poor (<11).  The key criterion for classifying and separating these macroinvertebrates is their sensitivity or need for higher or lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the supporting stream section.

            Our Chemical Water Quality Ratings for the Project Watershed program are based on criteria found in Mitchell & Stapp’s Field Manual for Water Quality Monitoring.  The chemical and physical elements measured in the stream under this Field Manual include Dissolved Oxygen, Fecal Coliforms, pH, Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Reactive Phosphate, Nitrate Nitrogen, Chlorides, Turbidity, and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) .

             The nine chemical-physical elements are graded into ‘Q-Values’ or index values that are added together to develop an Overall Water Quality Index (WQI) based on a scale of 0-100.  Dissolved oxygen levels in the surveyed stream section are given the highest rating under this Water Quality Index, with TDS weighed as the lowest.  Results yield ratings of Excellent (90-100), Good (70-90), Fair (50-70), and Poor (25-50).  [refer to Chart 2.]


Biological and Chemical Ratings for Onondaga Creek’s Stream Survey Sites

            Biological ratings are classed as Excellent, Good, Fair or Poor, based on the Save Our Streams biological monitoring data forms.  For each of the survey sites, we will indicate the number of surveys conducted, and whether or not the biological or chemical surveys were completed on each date of the surveys.

            Some of the surveys may have been incomplete (not surveyed) or partially complete for either the biological or chemical elements.

a) West Branch of Onondaga Creek, Town of Onondaga

Biological Ratings – 19 surveys – 16 complete

                                                                                    Sensitive       Less Sensitive

1998- 2002     Water Quality Rating                  Organisms    Organisms

                                    Excellent (>22)     2                        2

                                    Good (17-22)        6                        6

2003-2010                Good (17-22)        3                        3

                                    Fair (11-16)           3                        3

                                    Poor (<11)             2                        1                      1

Chemical Ratings    1998-2010   Fair to Good WQI ratings throughout

                                                              pH Range

Chlorides = 40-70 mg/l                 6-7//7-8//8-9

                                                              4       8       6

Other chemical parameters by selected years:         Turbidity       TDS

                                                                        1998                  4 NTU         250 mg/l

                                                                        2000                   1 NTU        290 mg/l

                                                                        2005                  7.5 NTU      400 mg/l

                                                                        2010                    6 NTU       300 mg/l


b) Tully Farms Road Crossing near Solvay Road, Town of LaFayette

Biological Ratings   20 surveys, 5 selected representing headwaters not affected by excessive chloride readings.

                                                                                    Sensitive       Less Sensitive

2003-2004     Water Quality Rating                   Organisms    Organisms

                        Excellent (>22)     1                                    1

                        Good (17-22)        2                                    2

                        Fair (11-16)           1                                    1


Chemical Ratings    2003-2004   Fair to Good WQI ratings

                                                                                                            pH Range

Chlorides = 17-36 mg/l (3 sites); 220-261 mg/l (2 sites)     7-8//8-9

                                                                                                               1       4

Other chemical parameters by selected years:         Turbidity       TDS

                                                                        2003                  4 NTU         240 mg/l

                                                                        2003                  7 NTU         654 mg/l

                                                                        2003                  1 NTU         270 mg/l

                                                                        2004                  4 NTU         260 mg/l


c) Tully Farms Road by Bear Mtn. Road, Town of LaFayette

Biological Ratings   13 surveys, 10 complete

                                                                                    Sensitive       Less Sensitive

1999-2008     Water Quality Rating                   Organisms    Organisms

                        Excellent (>22)     1                                    1

                        Good (17-22)        6                                    6

                        Fair (11-16)           3                                    3

                        Poor (<11)             1                                    1


Chemical Ratings    1999-2005    Fair to Good WQI ratings

                                                                                                  pH Range

Chlorides = 175-1400 mg/l; Ave. = 516 mg/l              6-7//7-8//8-9

                                                                                                  1       3       9

Other chemical parameters by selected years:         Turbidity       TDS

                                                                        1999                  3.5 NTU      440 mg/l

                                                                        2001                  3.9 NTU      880 mg/l

                                                                        2005                  6.7 NTU      1238 mg/l

                                                                        2008                  15.7 NTU   1068 mg/l


d) Dorwin Avenue Bridge Site, City of Syracuse

Biological Ratings   36 surveys, 25 complete

                                                                                    Sensitive       Less Sensitive

2003-2010     Water Quality Rating                  Organisms    Organisms

                  Excellent (>22)     1                                1

                        Good (17-22)         9                                9

                        Fair (11-16)             1                                                        1

2011-2020  Good (17-22)         4                                4

                        Fair (11-16)            14                            14

                        Poor (<11)              3                                2                    1


Chemical Ratings    2003-2010 & 2011-2020   Fair to Good WQI

                                                                                                pH Range

2003-2010:  Chlorides = 100-290 mg/l;              7-8//8-9

                                                   Ave. = 151 mg/l               5        6

2011-2020:  Chlorides = 115-480 mg/l                   15      10

                                                   Ave. = 226 mg/l

Other chemical parameters by selected years:   Turbidity     TDS

                                                                        2003                4 NTU       614 mg/l

                                                                        2009               17 NTU      543 mg/l

                                                                        2016                17 NTU      570 mg/l

                                                                        2020               14 NTU      760 mg/l


e) Kirk Park Site, City of Syracuse

Biological Ratings           10 surveys, 8 complete

                                                                                    Sensitive     Lesss Sensitive

2004-2011    Water Quality Rating             Organisms  Organisms

                        Good (17-22)           1                              1

                        Fair (11-16)            5                                5

                        Poor (<11)              3                                2                     1


Chemical Ratings   2994-29011    Fair to Good WQI ratings

                                                                                                pH Range

Chlorides = 127-370 mg/l; Ave. = 260 mg/l       6-7//7-8//8-9

                                                                                                  1        5        4

Other chemical parameters by selected years:   Turbidity     TDS

                                                                        2004                4 NTU       765 mg/l

                                                                        2011                 59 NTU     650 mg/l

                                                                        2015                23 NTU     776 mg/l


f) Dickerson Street Bridge, near downtown Syracuse

Biological Ratings           3 surveys, 2 complete

                                                                                    Sensitive     Less Sensitive

2009-2012 Water Quality Rating                Organisms  Organisms

                        Fair (11-16)          1                                   1

                        Poor (<11)            2                                                          2


Chemical Readings    Fair WQI ratings

                                                                        pH Range

Chlorides = 220-1070 mg/l                6-7//7-8//8-9

                                                                           1        1         1

Other chemical parameters by selected years:   Turbidity     TDS

                                                                        2009                2 NTU       700 mg/l

                                                                        2010                12 NTU      692 mg/l

                                                                        2012                17 NTU      1070 mg/l


Overall Analisys of Biolgical and Chemical Parameters in Onondaga Creek  by Les Monostory

            In terms of the biological water quality ratings for Onondaga Creek, what are not shown above is the presence of all three ratings on the biological monitoring data forms that include Sensitive, Less Sensitive, and Tolerant categories of macroinvertebrates.  The focus was to highlight the presence of Sensitive organisms, or lacking any of those, to indicate presence of Less Sensitive organisms. 

            The reason for focusing on presence of Sensitive organisms, such as mayflies, stoneflies, or riffle beetles, is that the presence of such Sensitive organisms indicates that dissolved oxygen levels remain high enough year-round at any given survey site along Onondaga Creek to support those macroinvertebrates.  If those Sensitive organisms are found to be present at any given survey site, you can be almost certain that additional organisms in the Less Sensitive and Tolerant categories will also be present at that same site

            The interesting point to make about our survey sites along Onondaga Creek is that at least one or more Sensitive organisms were found to be present at each of the sites from the headwaters by Tully Farms Road near Solvay Road all the way to the Dickerson Street site near downtown Syracuse.  There were likely fewer numbers of Sensitive organisms as we moved down from headwaters to Dickerson Street, but at least one such organism was present at each of the survey sites along Onondaga Creek.  This may explain why trout have been caught by anglers all along Onondaga Creek, even in the downtown Syracuse vicinity.


            With regard to the chemical parameters presented above, almost all of the survey sites were found to score within the Fair to Good overall Water Quality Index (WQI) range, except for the Dickerson Road site near downtown, where the 3 surveys all indicated merely a Fair rating.

            It is important to note that the Onondaga Creek Valley from Route 80 near Tully all the way to Syracuse has been severely impacted by the history of salt mining by the Solvay Process-Allied Chemical operations which date back from the late 1880’s through the mid-1980’s.  Drilling of numerous salt wells in the upper Onondaga Valley led to leakage of ground waters high in sodium and chloride ions, which escaped both to the surface waters of Onondaga Creek and to the area’s infamous “Mud Boils,” which also released ground waters high in both turbid clay particles and chlorides into Onondaga Creek.

            The “Mud Boils” are located near Onondaga Creek along Tully Farms Road between the Solvay Road and Bear Mtn. Road survey sites, and those mud boils remain active to the present day, despite efforts by US Geological Survey scientists to stem their discharges.  An interesting note from the uppermost survey site near Solvay Road is that our chemical records show periods of time when this section of stream has very low chloride levels in the 17-36 mg/l range – typical of uncontaminated “headwaters” conditions, and at other times there seem to be leakage of chlorides from adjacent salt wells that spike chloride levels upward to several hundred mg/l.

            The presence of higher chloride levels in fresh waters above 250 mg/l has been declared a hazard to the survival of Sensitive aquatic insects by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.  This doesn’t mean that those sensitive insects like mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies won’t be present when chloride levels exceed 250 mg/l, but their overall populations are likely to be lowered.  These aquatic insects are important sources of food for populations of trout.

            Among the ‘other’ chemical parameters listed above, pH levels can vary from one survey to another depending on amount of rainfall and inputs from adjacent surface and underground sources.  In Onondaga Creek, the pH levels typically are found in the mid to upper ranges of 7-9, indicating more basic than acidic conditions.

            Turbidity levels in Onondaga Creek are influenced by both rainfall events and continuous discharges from the Tully Mud Boils, and they can influence water clarity all the way down to the Creek discharge into Onondaga Lake.  Total Dissolved Solid (TDS) levels are also influenced by mostly the same factors, and can vary substantially from site to site and year to year.

            Additional records on water quality conditions in Onondaga Creek have been collected over the years by consulting engineer firms for Onondaga County’s Water Environmental Protection Department, and various reports from NYSDEC and other research groups or agencies.  Our Project Watershed volunteer stream monitoring records have been shared with the Environmental Health Division of the Onondaga County Health Department, which has allocated funds toward the cost of chemicals and some of the equipment used for our chemical monitoring.


National Izaak Walton League’s ‘Clean Water’ Program

            Over the past several years, the national Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) has added to the “Save Our Streams” program with a ‘Clean Water’ site on the IWLA website [iwla.org/water/resources for monitors] that includes information on stream monitoring, water quality in America, webinars for experts, and resources for monitors.

            These resources include a new ‘Clean Water Hub’ database of stream water quality records collected by volunteer monitoring groups across the nation, including our Project Watershed CNY program. The ‘Clean Water Hub’ also includes a linkable map showing the locations of some 4,800 stations across the United States where 73 organizations (to date) have entered their volunteer stream data.





Report compiled by Les Monostory,

Project Watershed Program Coordinator,

October 16, 2020, rev. Nov. 2

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