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Tributary Plunging in an Urban Lake (Onondaga Lake): Drivers, Signatures, and Implications1


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    Paper No. JAWRA-09-0007-P of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA). Discussions are open until six months from print publication.

(E-Mail/S.W. Effler:


Abstract:  A combination of long-term fixed-frequency and robotic monitoring information for a polluted urban lake, Onondaga Lake, New York, and two of its tributaries is used to resolve the propensity for, and occurrences of, tributary plunging. Cooler temperatures (T) and higher salinity (S) are primarily responsible for the elevated density and plunging of one of these polluted streams for the summer through early fall interval. In-lake transport of this plunging tributary, which receives inputs from combined sewer overflows (CSOs), is tracked by its high S during dry weather, its high turbidity (Tn) with associated lower S (dilution with rainwater) following runoff events, and by its characteristic ionic composition. These signatures are documented extending from the creek mouth, through a connecting navigation channel, through the inflow zone of the lake, and into metalimnetic depths of pelagic portions of the lake. The entry of this polluted tributary below the depth interval(s) of primary production and contact recreation has important implications for the ongoing major rehabilitation program for this lake. The plunging phenomenon diminishes the benefits previously expected for related features of the lake’s water quality from ongoing management efforts to abate CSO inputs and reduce nonpoint nutrient loading from the tributary. Previously this tributary tended to instead enter the upper layers of the lake during the operation of an adjoining soda ash manufacturing facility (closure in 1986), as a result of high lake S caused by the industry’s ionic waste discharge.