A Glimpse into the Oswego River/ Finger Lakes Watershed

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The Oswego River Basin in central New York State contains a diverse system of streams, lakes, and canals. The Oswego River Basin has an area of 5,100 square miles and contains three physiographic provinces—the Appalachian Plateau, the Tug Hill Plateau, and the Lake Ontario Plain.

The Oswego River/Finger Lakes Watershed is one of the largest in New York State and includes the drainages of the Oswego, Oneida, Seneca and Clyde Rivers. The watershed includes most of the New York Finger Lakes; in fact, the lakes make up about 6% of the total surface area of the watershed. The size of this watershed is 5,070 square miles of land area entirely within New York State. There is 8,896 miles of freshwater rivers and streams and 76 substantial freshwater lakes, ponds, and reservoirs.

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Surface water and ground water in the Oswego River Basin courses from upland watersheds to rivers and lakes and then to the troughs encompassing the main stem of the New York State Barge Canal. During some major storm-runoff periods, the water surface elevation in the Barge Canal near Montezuma (downstream from the Cayuga Lake outlet) has surpassed the water-surface elevation in Cayuga Lake. The area near Montezuma receives about 48 percent of the runoff from the Oswego River Basin’s 5,100 square miles. Further downstream (to the east), the canal obtains additional water from the Owasco, Skaneateles, and Otisco Lake watersheds, which, like Canandiagua Lake to the west, are at higher elevations and drain freely to the Clyde/ Seneca River trough.

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Not a Floodplain Problem, but a Watershed Concern

The quantity of water that enters any Finger Lake from a storm is contingent on local watershed conditions. For example according to the USGS (United States Geological Survey), when soils are saturated or frozen in the Cayuga Lake watershed, for every inch of water that falls on the watershed and runs off to the lake, the lake level increases by one foot within 1 to 2 days, but once in the lake, this amount of water can take a week or more to fully drain to the Barge Canal because the lake level can be lowered by only a tenth of a foot per day due to the low gradient of the Seneca Rive/Barge Canal and the difference in elevation between the River and Cayuga Lake.

Major water quality concerns in the watershed are the Legacy Industrial discharges in Syracuse/ Onondaga Lake area (currently being re-mediated), municipal waste water and combined sewer overflows in Syracuse and other urban areas, and agricultural and other non-point sources of nutrients and various other pollutants.


Most water-resource complications within the Oswego River Basin tend to be viewed upon as local water-level issues, property issues, water-quality issues or single-use issues. The obligation and challenge to water-resource managers and users is to view all issues within the framework of the whole basin-wide management. Only when the emphasis is on the entire system will the basin residents be able to outline sensible goals and work toward solving them.

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One thought on “A Glimpse into the Oswego River/ Finger Lakes Watershed

  1. I like how you split up the different categories you are writing about. It really makes it easier for the reader to understand. Each section has a lot of information, but they are also brief at the same time. From my post and yours it seems that industrial discharges are the cause of all these environmental problems.


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