Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Onondaga County's Save the Rain Program

Winter 2017

Onondaga Lake, once widely referred to as the most polluted lake in North America, is now vastly improved. Hard work and fiscal investment transformed the lake from a noxious stew to a place where people fish, boat and picnic. Bass fishing tournaments are held on the lake. In 2015, NYSDEC's then-commissioner Joe Martens even went for a swim to commemorate very publicly the lake's comeback.

Standard Superfund and wastewater treatment practices have been a highly effective part of the restoration of Onondaga Lake. Collaborative efforts also produced Onondaga County's award winning Save the Rain green infrastructure program to reduce combined sewer overflow (CSOs) discharges.

In many older urbanized areas with combined sewers, excessive storm waters frequently overwhelm the collection system, resulting in under-treated waste discharging into our waterways. The usual approach to CSOs has been "gray infrastructure" - highly effective tunnels, tanks, pumps and treatment systems. Onondaga County, however, embarked on an ambitious program to re-deploy hundreds of millions of dollars targeted for massive gray infrastructure toward community-beautifying "green infrastructure".

In January 2008, County Executive Mahoney suspended plans to construct large treatment facilities required by a federal consent judgment. These facilities would have loomed over Onondaga Creek and were unwelcomed by the local community and the Onondaga Nation. In 2009, a federal judge signed a much-revamped plan that relied on limited gray and extensive green infrastructure to achieve the aggressive 95 percent CSO capture goal. Onondaga County became the first community in the United States to enter into this type of legally-binding green program.

The initiative is an enormous success, from the 66,000-square foot green roof that covers the OnCenter Convention Center, to permeable basketball courts, to the water reuse cistern system at the War Memorial Arena. Rain barrels, tree pits, bioretention
filter-strips, underground infiltration systems and porous pavements abound. Onondaga County has made all its designs available on the web - there for you to use.

The success of the Save the Rain program has inspired other communities. For example, in 2011, New York City agreed to a $2.4 billion green infrastructure program as part of its long-term efforts to abate CSO discharges.

Installing green infrastructure is effective and makes sense due to its many co-benefits. Managing stormwater through green infrastructure saves energy, beautifies neighborhoods, abates localized flooding and basement backups and provides green
space. In Syracuse, neighborhoods opposed to the treatment facilities welcomed the planting of trees and renovated parking lots. Communities interested in green infrastructure can explore Onondaga County's website (a direct link is in the "Links Leaving DEC's Website" section in the right-hand column of this page).

The State of New York provides funding for green infrastructure projects through the Water Quality Improvement Project program, the Green Innovative Grants Program and some NYSDEC watershed programs. I encourage all communities with CSOs to follow Onondaga County's lead and explore green infrastructure solutions to reduce sewage overflows into New York's waters.

  • Links Leaving DEC's Website
  • Contact for this Page
  • Department of Environmental Conservation
    Division of Water, 4th Floor
    625 Broadway
    Albany, NY 12233-3500
    Send us an email
  • This Page Covers
  • Page applies to Region 7