Oneida Lake: ever-changing ecosystem

Managing water resources in Oneida Lake, WM Kappel

Oneida Lake watershed: A valuable diverse ecosystem, SM Harrington

Water level management, HM Goebel

Oneida Lake: undergoing ecological change, EL Mills, KT Holeck

Evolution of the Oneida Lake fishery, T VanDeValk, L Rudstam

Regional partnerships for Oneida Lake watershed, AB Saltman

Helping to protect Oneida Lake, J Henke

Trends: technology and management of municipal wastewater, D Interdonato, E McCarthy

Outstanding young researchers

President's message, D. Ellis

Executive director's message, P Cerro-Reehil

People and places

Joint CSO/SSO meeting


  Winter 2001 — Vol. 31, No. 4

Oneida Lake watershed: A valuable diverse ecosystem

by Stephanie M. Harrington

Dairy farms enhance the landscape in the southern Oneida Lake watershed.

This article outlines the setting and introduces the unique environment of the Oneida Lake watershed. The watershed is a great resource for residents and tourists alike that should be shared and protected for generations to come.

The Oneida Lake watershed is an exceptional place. Spanning portions of six counties and sixty-nine municipalities, the Oneida Lake watershed is a diverse ecosystem that offers a variety of recreational and economic opportunities. Extending from uplands to lowlands and from cities to rural towns, the region varies greatly in its landscape, character, and composition. An extensive infrastructure in conjunction with abundant wildlife, aesthetic appeal, and a wide range of tourism and recreational benefits form the heart of this valuable and diverse ecosystem.

The Oneida Lake watershed is a system—an integrated whole that cannot be viewed solely by its individual parts. Physical and hydrologic attributes in combination with land use patterns, cultural aspects, and human forces acting within the watershed results in an ecosystem whose value and uniqueness stems from its diversity.

Framework to understand the watershed

Oneida Lake is the largest water body located entirely within New York State. It has a surface area of 79.8 square miles and is 20.9 miles long and 5.5 miles at its widest point (Greeson and Meyers 1969). Many seasonal and permanent homes are located along the 54.7 miles of shoreline. The lake is fully exposed to the prevailing westerly winds resulting in seiches and frequent mixing. Oneida Lake has many shoal areas and, because it is shallow, is easily warmed in the summer. The average depth is 22.3 ft. Normal elevation above sea level is 366 ft during the winter and 369 ft during the summer (Mills et al. 1978). The watershed drains more than 800,000 acres and encompasses parts of Lewis, Cortland, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, and Oswego Counties.

The Oneida Lake watershed, embedded in the Oswego River Drainage Basin system, is located in three physiographic regions including the Tug Hill Uplands, the Erie-Ontario Lowlands (also known as the Oneida Lake Plain), and the Appalachian Uplands. Wetlands with meandering slow-flowing streams characterize much of the lowland region, an area susceptible to flooding because it is flat and serves as the point of drainage from the upland watershed area. The Appalachian Uplands in the southern portion of the watershed and the forested Tug Hill Uplands in the northern portion of the watershed are characterized by hills and valleys.

Oneida Lake is situated in a depression of the glacially-created former Lake Iroquois. The geology and soils of the region are a result of the glacial influences. The bedrock consists mostly of shale and limestone in the southern part of the watershed and erosion-resistant sandstone in the north.

Land use influences water quality

Wetlands are prolific throughout the watershed but have been significantly reduced by development and agriculture. Wetland losses result in a reduced ability of the watershed to filter nutrient and sediment pollutants, temper water levels during periods of high precipitation, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Swamps near Cicero and Canastota contain extensive muck and peat deposits. In the lower Cowaselon Creek area alone, over 5000 acres of muck have been extensively drained and converted to agricultural land (Madison County Local Working Group 1997). Through cooperative efforts, wetlands are now being protected and restored in the Cowaselon Creek area.
Figure 1. Land use in Oneida Lake watershed. Click for larger image in new window.

Tug Hill, the most rural portion of the watershed, is heavily wooded and contains abundant wetlands as well. Forest recreational opportunities, timber harvesting, and wood-using industries are the mainstay of the Tug Hill economy.

The remainder of the watershed is more developed and is dominated by urban and agricultural land uses. Figure 1 summarizes the land uses of the watershed. There are four cities in the watershed, Syracuse, Rome, Sherrill, and Oneida, all of which are located in the southern portion of the watershed. Likewise, agricultural activity in the watershed is concentrated in the counties of Madison, Oneida, and Onondaga.

The diverse land use patterns combined with the physical characteristics of the watershed tend to result in nutrient-poor streams flowing from the north and nutrient-rich streams flowing from the south. Urban, forest, and agricultural land uses raise concern about sediment loading to the lake throughout the Oneida Lake watershed.


Chittenango Creek flows north to Oneida Lake

The predominant drainage pattern of the Oneida Lake watershed is dendritic. The main tributaries in the watershed are Butternut Creek, Canaseraga Creek, Chittenango Creek, Cowaselon Creek, Fish Creek, Limestone Creek, Oneida Creek, Scriba Creek, and Wood Creek (Figure 2).

The East and West Branches of Fish Creek contribute the largest proportion of total discharge to the lake, 23% and 21% respectively. In the southern portion of the watershed, Chittenango and Oneida Creeks contribute 25% of the lake's total inflow (Mills et al. 1978). The entire northern watershed region contributes approximately 67% of the total discharge to Oneida Lake, yet most of the nutrients come from the southern tributaries (Mills et al. 1999).

The outlet of Oneida Lake is the Oneida River on the west side of the lake. Oneida Lake water flows from the Oneida River to the Oswego River where it eventually makes its way to Lake Ontario.
Figure 2. Oneida Lake drainage basin. Click for larger image in new window.

Everybody lives in a watershed

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (1990) 224,800 people live in the Oneida Lake watershed. Onondaga County contributes the largest percentage; Lewis County contributes the smallest. Similarly, population density in the watershed ranges widely from 588 persons/mi² in Onondaga County to 21 persons/mi² in Lewis County in 2000. The Oneida Indian Nation is an important cultural influence and economic force within the watershed as well.

Demographic and socioeconomic characteristics influence the health of the watershed. Trends show a decline in the cities with a shift to suburbs. In 1900, 476 dwellings dotted the shoreline; that number increased to 4298 by 1960 (Mills et al. 1978). Shoreline populations continue to increase as dwellings along Oneida Lake are converted from seasonal camps to permanent residences. Census counts for 1990 and 2000 for the Village of Sylvan Beach on the eastern shore of Oneida Lake show an increase in the total number of housing units from 750 to 847 with a decrease in the percentage of residences used for seasonal, recreational, and occasional uses from 38 to 34%.

Such changes in population stress the ecosystem. For example, as the need for waste disposal systems grows with the changing population, septic systems are often built on unsuitable sites with poor soils and insufficient drainage. These systems fail to filter nutrients before entering the water column and affect the aquatic environment. However, increases in population can be beneficial because growth tends to stimulate the watershed economy resulting in the availability of funds to upgrade aging infrastructure.

Tourism and recreation

In 1918, the Erie Canal was enlarged and modified to facilitate the transport of larger barges. The new Barge Canal extended through Oneida Lake, connecting it to the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean. Today the canal network is known as the New York State Canal System and is a widely used recreational and historic resource that provides a boost to the upstate economy. The system makes the Oneida Lake region more accessible and economically attractive. The canal system is currently the focus of a statewide initiative to improve recreational benefits for tourists around the world.

A variety of tourism and recreational opportunities are available in the Oneida Lake watershed. Regional attractions, annual events, extensive park and recreational facilities, excellent boating and fishing access, and other tourism opportunities greatly enhance the watershed's value. Two state parks, one county park, and two state wildlife management areas border the lake. Recreational facilities throughout the watershed offer a wide range of activities such as swimming, hiking, bird watching, fall foliage viewing, golfing, cross-county skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, trapping, and camping.

In addition, New York State operates the Oneida Lake Fish Cultural Station in Constantia. NYSDEC stocks the lake and its tributaries with a variety of fish species of interest to anglers.

Regional prosperity is linked to ecosystem health. Oneida Lake is on NYSDEC's list of top fishing waters and is cited as one of the state's popular waters for fishing walleye, perch, and small-mouth and large-mouth bass. NYSDEC conducted a statewide survey of 1996 angler effort and expenditures. The report documented 573,060 angler days for Oneida Lake, ranking it first of all inland waters in New York State. In 1996, anglers spent an estimated $10.3 million on fishing trips to Oneida Lake. The net economic value of Oneida Lake's freshwater fishery was estimated in 1996 to be over $9.4 million, again ranking it first among New York State's inland waters (Connelly et al. 1997).
Sailing and other recreational opportunities appeal to many local homeowners visitors.

Oneida Lake is also heavily used for recreational boating, including jet skiing and sailing. During the 1997 boating season (April-November), an average of 48% of the boats using the lake were non-fishing boats (VanDeValk et al. 1998). These users contribute greatly to the economic welfare of the watershed as well.

Watershed management for preservation

Many agencies, organizations, and stakeholders are dedicating their efforts to the protection and enhancement of the Oneida Lake watershed. Numerous organizations are involved in managing this dynamic ecological system. The Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board is coordinating the Oneida Lake and Watershed Management Plan Plan in cooperation with the Herkimer-Oneida Counties Comprehensive Planning Program, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County, county soil and water conservation districts, and other local partners.

The management plan is a regional initiative. It is an opportunity for local governments and stakeholders to identify and prioritize issues of concern in the watershed and to select restoration and enhancement goals for the long-term protection of water resources. This will be achieved through education initiatives, tributary water quality monitoring, a comprehensive state-of-the-lake and watershed report, and local level involvement. More information on the Oneida Lake and Watershed Management Plan is found in the article “Regional partnerships for Oneida Lake watershed,” later in this magazine.

The Cornell Biological Field Station, on Oneida Lake's Shackelton Point, is conducting extensive research in the lake basin. Likewise, county soil and water conservation districts, NYSDEC, county and state health departments, the Oneida Lake Association, county planning departments, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Canal Corporation, Tug Hill Commission, and Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust are some of the key organizations that have ongoing water resource protection programs in this watershed.


Physical and hydrologic characteristics, land use patterns, and human influences combine to make the Oneida Lake watershed a valuable ecosystem that merits protection. The diverse and dynamic nature of the system challenges water resource managers, yet diversity within the watershed is an essential component of its existence. The abundant natural resources found in the watershed attract diverse user groups. In water resources management in general conflict among the various stakeholder groups can arise when use priorities differ or are at odds with each other. As a result, resource protection efforts can be stalled or eliminated.

Protection can be achieved if stakeholders adopt a holistic approach to managing watershed resources and appreciate that Oneida Lake is part of a larger complex system that cannot be viewed by its political subdivisions. By better understanding the Oneida Lake watershed system and its complex interactions, more effective watershed-wide protection efforts can be achieved. Regional partnerships result in increased grant funding opportunities, and regional partnerships in combination with local-level involvement in the Oneida Lake watershed management planning process will ensure the protection of a great ecosystem.
Stephanie M. Harrington is an environmental planner with the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board in Syracuse. Phone 315-422-8276. Photos by Anne B. Saltman.

Connelly, N.A., T.L. Brown and B.A. Knuth. 1997. New York Statewide Angler Survey 1996, Report I: Angler Effort and Expenditures. NYSDEC, Albany, NY.

Greeson, P.E., and G.S. Meyers. 1969. The Limnology of Oneida Lake: An Interim Report. Report of Investigation RI-8. U.S. Geological Survey and State of New York Conservation Department Water Resources Commission.

Madison County Local Working Group. 1997. New York State Madison County Priority Area Watershed Assessment Report for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Mills, E., J. Forney, M. Clady, W. Schaffer. 1978. “Oneida Lake,” in Lakes of New York State, Vol. 2. Ed. Jay Bloomfield et al.. New York: Academic Press, pp. 367-451.

Mills, E., L. Rudstam, C. Adams, A. VanDeValk, J. Forney, M. Richmond, R. Schneider, and J. Henke. 1999. The Oneida Lake Profile. Cornell University and the Oneida Lake Association.

VanDeValk, A.J., L.G. Rudstam, M. Gerken, B. Young and J. Hooper. 1998. The Oneida Lake Creel Survey, 1997-98. Cornell Biological Field Station at Shackelton Point, New York.

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