Environmental Lessons From the Oswego River’s Past

The Oswego River is 23 miles long and is formed from the intersection of the Oneida and Seneca Rivers in central New York State. The Oswego flows from Three Rivers Point through the municipalities of Phoenix, Himansville, Minetto, Seneca Hill, and Oswego before emptying out into Lake Ontario. 

Extending over 5000 square miles of land, the Oswego’s watershed absorbs stormwater runoff from millions of acres of farmland as well as from the urban Syracuse area. There are six dams and eight locks along the Oswego River. More than 4.2 billion gallons of water flow through the river each day and over 2 million people live in the region covered by the basin.

Oswego Circular Economy Sustainability Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

The Oswego river basin (NYSDEC)

HISTORY

The Oswego is a central water line in the region that historically catalyzed a great deal of economic activity. The Onondaga, Iroquois, and Clackamas lived along the river, taking advantage of the flourishing wildlife and game that the river basin afforded. 

The name of the river comes from an indigenous Onondaga term “OSH – WE – GEH”, translated as “river’s mouth”. 

Later on, a host of water-powered flour, woolen, and paper mills built by settlers cropped up along the river banks, powered by the Oswego’s fast currents. Yet the river’s economic centrality also brought about its damage and exploitation.

Oswego Circular Economy Solutions Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Oswego cloth factory along the banks of the river, built in the 1870s (Hudson Valley Ruins)

From 1850-1875, the Oswego Canal, which linked the economically bustling Erie Canal with Lake Ontario, made the river basin an attractive location for manufacturers to set up operations. With little regard for the surrounding environment, salt producers and metal processing plants often dumped the by-products of their manufacturing assemblies directly into the watershed. 

Furthermore, up until the construction of sewage treatment plants in the 1960s, raw sewage was regularly dumped into the Oswego River. The combination of untreated wastewater and manufacturing by-products made the harbor area of the river mouth toxic and threatened the water supply of local citizens.

WILDLIFE

There are a variety of fish that are commonly found in the Oswego River. These include chinook salmon, walleye, smallmouth bass, steelhead trout, and yellow perch among many others. Nearby residents frequently come to the banks of the Oswego to try their luck at catching the many fish that swim in the river’s waters. 

The fall run of chinook salmon is a particularly valued prize that draws many to Oswego and Fulton’s streets.

Oswego Waste Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Fishing along the Oswego River (Central NY Outdoors)

THE OSWEGO RIVER AND LAKE ONTARIO

Besides the Niagara River, the Oswego watershed is the second largest tributary to Lake Ontario. Consequently, pollutants in the river from sewage discharge, stormwater and agricultural runoff, and industrial dumping, flow out into the great lake and contaminate its ecosystem. 

There are many negative impacts of pollution from the Oswego River on Lake Ontario. After the declaration of the Oswego River Basin as an EPA area of concern, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation began investigating the sources of pollution to Lake Ontario from the Oswego River. 

They found that four major pollutants in Lake Ontario – mirex, PCBs, dioxin, and mercury  – likely came from the Oswego’s watershed. 

CHEMICAL AND WASTEWATER POLLUTION

The Oswego River basin was declared an Area of Concern (AOC) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1987. High levels of toxic pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), oil, and cyanide were found in excess of recommended safety standards. 

The EPA attributed buildup of toxic materials to be the consequence of wastewater contamination, industrial dumping, and polluted stormwater runoff. For instance, a state of New York report found that one chemical manufacturing plant regularly dumped a host of pollutants including sodium chloride, calcium chloride, and mercury wastes directly into the river. 

The Oswego Westside sewage treatment plant would release wastewater directly into the harbor while the Niagara Mohawk Power Company would discharge its cooling waters there as well. These effluents introduced harmful chemicals and compounds into the river’s water, threatening riparian biodiversity and the health of Lake Ontario.

PLASTIC POLLUTION

Plastic pollution has become a major ecological issue in the Great Lakes region and has also impacted the Oswego watershed. The Plastic Lakes Project estimates that over 3 million pounds of plastic waste ends up in Lake Ontario each year. 

Scientists point to the accumulation of microplastics from plastic littering as one of the chief culprits behind this pollution.

Everything from disposable plastic bags to single-use water bottles and wrappers have been found in abundance along the river’s banks and within the lake’s waters. 80% of all litter around the Great Lake shores is plastic debris and as these pieces of waste enter the water, they break down under the sun and waves. 

Yet, the vast majority of microplastics comes from polyester clothing as plastic fibers come off when washed in laundry machines and then enter the lakes.

Oswego Plastic Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Plastic waste in the Oswego River (SaultOnline)

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF HUMAN ACTIVITY ON THE OSWEGO

The discharge of a variety of effluents and the many structural modifications made along the Oswego’s course resulted in a series of negative ecological consequences. Native fish populations declined as certain portions of the river close to the Varick dam would become periodically dry and fish eggs died.

Furthermore, the release of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by manufacturers into the Oswego River and Lake Ontario posed a dangerous threat to local residents. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, PCBs are commonly found in coolants and insulation. They are associated with health impairments like infertility, neurobehavioral changes in children, and can even cause comas or death. 

The excess release of phosphorus by sewage treatment plants in the Oswego River has also contributed to a series of dramatic algae blooms across Lake Ontario. 

The US Geological Survey notes that high concentrations of phosphorus lead to the removal of oxygen from lake waters via a process known as eutrophication. Without the requisite amount of oxygen, animals die off and large plant growths spread across the lake surface. 

EFFECTS OF PLASTIC POLLUTION

As plastics continue to accumulate in the bodies of the Oswego watershed and Lake Ontario region. They become ingested by local fish and marine animals where they can cause immense harm.

Reports have indicated that plastics alter animal feeding behaviors, reduce fertility, and can even lead to death. Yet the impacts of plastic pollution don’t stop at nature’s doorstep. 

Through the process of biological magnification, particles of plastic buildup as animals progress through the food chain. 

When humans consume fish inundated with high levels of plastic, they are exposing themselves to a slew of dangerous health conditions.

THE THREAT OF CONTAMINATED WATER

Fecal-contaminated water presents a clear health risk to humans, animals, and plants. Troublingly, the Oswego River seems to be beset by a never-ending struggle with raw sewage entering its freshwater.

Untreated wastewater poses an imminent threat to wildlife, introducing harmful bacteria and pathogens into aquatic ecosystems. The impact of raw sewage on humans is equally as concerning. Wastewater is a known culprit behind cholera, salmonella, and gastroenteritis.

REMEDIAL STEPS ALREADY TAKEN TO ADDRESS RIVER POLLUTION

A series of private and civil society initiatives have cropped up to address pollution in the Oswego watershed region and Lake Ontario. For instance, the Brookfield Power company which operates the Varick Dam agreed to construct fish passage systems and maintain minimum bypass flows

This enabled native fish populations to lay their eggs and hatch in due course without the threat of the river running dry as it had in previous years. 

COMMUNITY INITIATIVES

  • To raise awareness around the human and industrial contributions to plastic pollution in Lake Ontario, advanced art students from SUNY Oswego worked together to create an educational arts campaign and exhibit for the wider community. 
  • Another initiative at the state school called the Shining Waters Program runs weekly clean-ups of the Lake Ontario area by involving students in gathering plastic debris found in the area. 
Oswego Sustainability Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Shining Waters hosting  weekly clean-ups in Lake Ontario Area (Shining Waters)

Oswego Community Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Alliance for the Great Lakes doing clean ups (Alliance for the Great Lakes)

Oswego Volunteer Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

A participant in annual Lake Ontario trash cleanup (NiagraNow)

ADMINISTRATIVE ACTORS 

A variety of administrative actors have been involved in the preservation of Oswego. They include the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Ontario’s provincial government and local municipal authorities. 

The Oswego River Basin was the first of 26 areas of concern (AOC) designated by the EPA to be delisted after some significant steps were taken to address river pollution. 

Through the engagement of regional authorities, businesses, and local communities, many positive actions improved the water quality and riparian habitat of the Oswego region. 

ACTION PLAN AND REGULATIONS

Under an EPA remedial action plan, stricter limits were set on the discharge of harmful pollutants like PCBs and phosphorus while simultaneous improvements were made to monitoring practices. 

In 2017, the federal government banned the use of microplastics in soaps, shampoos, and facial scrubs. Additionally, the New York State Legislature decided to ban single-use plastic bags throughout New York in 2019

Both of these interventions are expected to help reduce the amount of plastic in the river’s waters. The city of Oswego even committed to investing $87 million in modernizing its sewage program and updating its operations back in 2014.

SHORTCOMINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATION

Despite these encouraging strides, sewage and plastics continue to plague the river. Although there have been periods of improvement since the low point of the 1960s, numerous administration interventions have resulted in only sporadic progress. 

As a designated Area of Concern, the Oswego was mandated to undergo the implementation of a 1991 Remedial Action Plan to bring the river into compliance with water quality standards. But it seems that things aren’t working the way they were expected to. 

  • Even though the region was deemed clean enough to be delisted by the EPA in 2006, only four years later, the Department of Justice fined Oswego close to $100,000 for allowing sewage to continue entering the river. 
  • The DOJ found that local administrations were failing to separate wastewater from stormwater runoff. As a result, local treatment plants were frequently overwhelmed, and sewage poured freely into the Oswego’s waters. 
  • A local Oswego superintendent was recently jailed for knowingly dumping over 60 times the legally allowed amount of raw sewage into Lake Ontario throughout 2014-2015. 
  • A series of studies have also shown the recurring issue of plastics pollution in the Great Lakes. Notwithstanding recent actions by the administration, the amount of plastic in Lake Ontario is increasing annually. 

Regional authorities seem unable to follow through on meaningful, long-term investments and community engagements to address these life-threatening issues.

A QUESTION OF APPROACH: LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE

There is an evident need for meaningful conservation action in the Oswego region. The improper use of chemical and plastic resources has threatened the biodiversity of the Great Lakes while posing a direct threat to human health. 

For all the millions the administration has spent attempting to address this issue, daunting challenges remain.

Some leading environmental advocates suggest that this is a question of approach. Initiatives in the Oswego River and Lake Ontario thus far have concentrated on mitigating symptoms of plastic pollutants. 

Prominent researchers, like Tamara Galloway of the University of Exeter, explained that the most advisable solutions will look towards addressing the issue at its source; a broken economic model. 

A CIRCULAR MATERIALS ECONOMY

Plastics are very hard to reincorporate back into the natural environment, thus making them an unsustainable material. 

However, under an ideal circular economic model, all resources that are used in the manufacturing and consumption process are able to be cycled back into the natural world. 

Such a system minimizes waste and ensures that products are ultimately used for longer.

Plastic Recycling Circular Economy Mumbai India Environmental NGO Earth5R

Earth5R recycling training in Palghar, India (Earth5R)

In the case of the Oswego River and Lake Ontario, everyday citizens are an essential part of the solution. 

Recent Earth5R waste reduction initiatives in the Mithi River in Mumbai and recycling trainings in Palghar indicate the positive impact of pollution awareness and education in engaging local communities. 

By taking simple steps like minimizing the use of single-use plastic products, incorporating reusable materials into daily routines, and taking care of the dangers of microfiber plastic pollution present in laundry, every person can be part of a solution towards a better future.

Reach out to Earth5R to learn more about solving environmental issues by creating circular economy based sustainability projects

ABOUT EARTH5R

Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.

Earth5R is conducting large-scale online training on COVID 19 Coronavirus prevention, response, management, and self-sustainability. These trainings are conducted on digital platforms in regional languages across India and other countries.

Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.

Reported by Adam Shaham, edited by Shafa Azzahra

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