To be an innovative water industry leader for the 21st Century.
To provide safe, reliable and affordable water to residents, businesses and industries in Central New York in a manner protective of water resources and the environment.
Adopted by OCWA Board of Directors March 28, 2018
OCWA proudly serves 340,000 residents in five counties in Central New York, including Onondaga, Oswego, Madison, Oneida and Cayuga. Click on the following link to see a complete map of our system.
The Early Years
The formation of urban water systems has, with few exceptions, followed a predictable course. At some point during a settlement’s transition from a crossroads to a proper city, the fear of major fires or their occurrence spurred local elites to form some sort of water system. Later, epidemics (particularly the terrible cholera and typhoid epidemics of the mid- and late-nineteenth century) prompted concern about water purity and the necessity of protecting sources from contamination because of inadequate or nonexistent sanitary waste disposal systems.
These urban water systems were often originally private concerns, but they usually reverted to public ownership when it became clear that private capital and private priorities were incapable of meeting public needs. (1)
Suburban and rural water systems, on the other hand, came later and have had a much less predictable history. Population density in such areas is by definition below that which would create major fire and epidemic risks. Furthermore, the cost of delivering water to a scattered population would ordinarily frighten off potential investors and overwhelm local public resources. So, few such systems were created until well into the twentieth century, when the federal government began financing the extension of urban services to nonurban areas.
Water for Syracuse’s suburbs
The Syracuse Suburban Water System was one of the few that predated federal involvement in local development. Moreover, unlike urban water systems, it was created primarily to meet the requirements of large-scale industry.
Suburban Syracuse’s primary source of water, Otisco Lake, was first developed by the State of New York between 1868 and 1873. Joining in the national orgy of spending following the Civil War, the state legislature authorized the construction of several dams to create reservoirs for the Erie Canal in times of drought. The Hunsiker Brothers of Mottville began construction of one of these dams at the outlet of Skaneateles Lake in July of 1868; another dam was authorized for the outlet of Otisco Lake the same year. The contract for this 10-ft dam was let on October 1, 1868 and took 3 years to complete. Seven hundred acres of land were purchased by the state and inundated, increasing the surface area of Otisco Lake to 2200 acres. (2)
While New York State transportation needs governed the original development of Otisco Lake, the growing pains of the modern industrial economy affected its exploitation as a source of potable water. Steady contraction of the money supply beginning in 1873, combined with rapid industrial expansion, created a severe shortage of capital in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Public water systems were not in the best position to compete for scarce investment funds; so the American Pipe Manufacturing Company, a Philadelphia firm, formed and partly financed several water companies, including the Onondaga County Suburban Water Company, to assure a steady demand for their cast iron pipe. The papers of incorporation, filed April 11, 1907, suggest that the American Pipe Company supplied almost all of the directors, naming H. Bayard Hodge, Ervin Lyndall, Harry E. Fauser, William Roth, Alexander R. Colesberry and Alvin T. Lippincott of Pennsylvania, and only George M. Bailey of Syracuse. (3)
The pipe company also had its engineers draw up the plans for the construction of the new dam, intake, reservoir, and transmission line, and supplied the new water company’s chief engineer. (4) The system was designed to supply several large consumers who were finding their current supplies inadequate. Closest by, the Village of Marcellus had already had engineers in to estimate the cost of building a municipal water plant.
Their estimate of $40,000 (equal to 10% of the total assessed valuation of the entire village [equivalent to $800,000 in 2000]) forced Village officials to look for others to supply the village. The villages of Camillus, Solvay, and DeWitt were also looking for a new water supply. (5)
However, the most important potential customer was the New York Central and Hudson Railroad. At the time, the New York Central’s repair shops and yards east of the city were supplied by the City of Syracuse through its line from Skaneateles Lake, but the City’s single transmission line was incapable of meeting peak demands. During the summer of 1907 (and not for the first time) the New York Central had to cut way back on its water use to keep the City’s Woodard reservoir from being drained. Solvay Process was also looking for a supplement to its existing supply. (6)
Philadelphia capital was not merely interested in piping water out of Otisco Lake. The Heraldreported that the water company was connected with two companies formed to develop Otisco as a resort area: the Marcellus and Otisco Lake Railroad planned to complete a line from the village to the lake by the end of Spring 1907, and the Otisco Lake Navigation Co. was formed in early May 1907 to run a steamship line up and down the lake. (7)
The Onondaga County Suburban Water Company was originally capitalized at $50,000 [$1 million in 2000], but this was not enough to start construction. After changing its name to the Syracuse Suburban Water Company in September of 1907, the company attempted to increase its capital to $600,000 ($12 million in 2000). However, few of their shares sold at first. The international financial panic of October of 1907 ushered in a severe economic depression. As a result, the water company could not raise enough money to begin construction until 1909. (8)
As soon as financial obstacles were overcome, they were replaced by political and legal ones. On the ninth of January 1909 the Syracuse Suburban Water Company announced that the New York State Water Power and Supply Commission would hold a hearing on its request to lay pipe within the City of Syracuse. Less than a week later the City of Syracuse responded by filing fifteen objections with the Water Power Commission.
City officials had realized years before that their transmission facilities were no longer capable of meeting the peak demands of both the city and industrial users. As early as Spring of 1907 the mayor called for a second line from Skaneateles. By the time the Syracuse Suburban Water Co. announced its contract with the New York Central, the City’s second transmission line was near completion. The City had been relying on the industrial demand that Syracuse Suburban Water was taking over to justify the new facilities.
Also objecting at the hearings were people owning land along the lake because the water company had not bought up flooding rights yet; the Village of Marcellus, which was maneuvering for a better price for water; and the Federal Milling Co., the Paddock Tube Paper Co., Alfred Hinsdale and Carrie Sims of Amboy who objected to water being diverted from Nine Mile Creek. (9) One month after the hearing, the newly franchised water company was charged with reneging on their agreement with the state to supply the State Fair Grounds with free water in exchange for permission to run lines through the City. They merely installed the lines, leaving supply and maintenance to the City. (10)
Attacks on Syracuse Suburban Water continued the next year when the Post Standard charged that it had “undue influence over the Mayor,” and that that was why the Mayor and the Corporation Counsel announced that Syracuse had no legal right to sell water outside the city limits—virtually delivering Solvay Process and Halcomb Steel to the Suburban Water Co. as customers.* In practice however, the City continued to supply the Solvay Process, Crouse Hinds, Halcomb Steel, and Will and Baumer plants as well as the suburbs of Everingham and the Avery tract. The Corporation Counsel decided it was legal after all because many of the employees at those plants were city residents. (11)
Syracuse Suburban Water began operations with a new dam and intake at Otisco Lake, a reservoir in Fairmount, and a standpipe in Eastwood. The single transmission line was 20 inches in diameter from the lake through Fairmount to Solvay Process. From there to the DeWitt yards they ran a 16-inch main; and from DeWitt to the Minoa shops and from Fairmount to Amboy they ran 8-inch lines. Whenever possible the mains were laid in the New York Central’s right of way, presumably to avoid long and expensive negotiations with individual property owners and local governments to obtain their own right of way. (12)
*The 1892 state charter giving permission to draw water from Skaneateles Lake to the City of Syracuse was the basis of the Corporation Counsel’s claim. The opening of the new line took place without fanfare. Local newspapers made no mention of the event, which probably occurred on the first of July when the Otisco Lake operator made the first entries into the log book. The log shows they pumped an average of 3.1 million gallons per day the first month. Demand rose sharply in November to an average daily demand of 3.8 million gallons in January and February. The following Spring a water meter was installed to measure production more accurately. Chlorination equipment was added on October 6, 1914. (13)
For more than a decade, the system ran uneventfully. The transmission line was shut down only three times before 1924, once to clean the Fairmount reservoir (July 16, 1913) and twice to make connections (June 21, 1913 and June 26, 1913). The first break in the transmission line, in May of 1924 at Marcellus Falls, was repaired before customers were inconvenienced. Two more cracks in the same bridge in February of 1925 caused Syracuse Suburban’s only other major shutdowns. (14)
In December of 1926, the Federal Water Service bought Syracuse Suburban and changed its name to the Onondaga Water Service. Shortly after, the system began expanding and became once more the center of controversy. In 1927 the 20-inch transmission line between the lake and Fairmount was augmented by a 24-inch line. The next year chlorination equipment at Otisco was replaced, and the Wolf Street booster station and service building were added. Then anticipating heavy demand from the New York Central, the Onondaga Water Service increased capacity by building a new Otisco booster station in 1929. (15)
Demand for water soon began to justify improvements in the system:
First, suburban Syracuse experienced a housing boom in the late 1920s. Developers either installed or paid the Onondaga Water Service to install mains and services in new tracts in Mattydale, Lyncourt, and Fairmount. A Builder was charged 70 cents/ft for 6- and 8-inch mains ($6 in 2000), and $10 plus a $2 advance minimum for 3/4-inch taps in the McCain tract ($86 plus a $17 advance in 2000). (16)
Second, supply to some older areas was upgraded. Both the Village of Lyncourt and Town of Salina had 2-, 2½-, and 3-inch mains replaced by 6- and 8-inch mains when they formed fire districts and paid for hydrants. (17)
A stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent collapse of the economy by the end of 1930 sharply reduced demand for water and stopped expansion, with one exception—a main extension on Buckley Road in 1939 to serve several truck farmers. The new customers undertook the trenching and backfilling themselves. The only major improvement to the system in the decade was the installation of chlorination equipment at Fairmount reservoir to eliminate E. coli from the lines east of the reservoir. (21)
Conflict between the Onondaga Water Service and various sections of the public increased in the 1920s and took off during the Depression. It began with Marcellus mill owners. When Onondaga Water Service planned expanding their capacity, they went to the New York State Water Control Commission to obtain permission to draw 11 million gal/day from Otisco Lake—an increase of 6 million gal/day. Marcellus Paper Company, Onondaga Paper Company and the Crown Mills then asked for damages equal to the entire value of their mills. The State then formed a condemnation commission in 1928 to settle on the amount owed by the Water Service. (22)
Three years later, conflict between Onondaga Water Service and mill owners began again. Drought in 1930 had reduced the lake level to more than 70 inches below the dam marker by the end of January, 1931. (The same time the year before it was only 1 inch below the marker.) Onondaga Water Service officials tried to reduce flow to Nine Mile Creek to maintain water quality. Mill owners went to the State Commissioner of Waterways to try to force the Onondaga Water Service to increase the flow to the creek.
Recognizing the impossibility of satisfying both sides, the State Commissioner of Canals and Waterways, Ralph O. Hayes, recommended that the state abandon its interest in the lake and sell its water rights. All interested parties then objected. Senator Fearon for the Water Service complained that the Onondaga Water Service would then have to pay for what the state had already granted them—the right to draw 11 million gal/day from the lake. Mill interests saw that with the withdrawal of state control, the Water Service, as the sole owner of the dam, would be able to operate the dam as it saw fit. Finally,the state Attorney General, John J. Bennett, Jr., ruled that the state could not pass on ownership of the waters of Otisco Lake and Nine Mile Creek, only certain riparian rights. (23)
Though the Attorney General’s decision quieted the mill owners, it left ground open for a major battle between the water service and Otisco Lake residents. Less than 2 months later, Senator Fearon, legal representative of the Water Service, had bought the mills’ water rights and was negotiating with the State Department of Public Works for the extinction of the State’s remaining ownership and control of Otisco Lake. As a result, the Canal and Waterways Commissioner announced that remaining state rights were to be sold at public auction if no serious objections were raised at a public hearing. Since the Attorney General had ruled that the water service had exclusive rights to the water in the lake and they had already acquired most of the riparian rights along Nine Mile Creek, it was unlikely that anyone would bid against them. (24)
Public response was immediate. Otisco Lake cottage owners fired off a letter to the editor in opposition to the sale for publication in the next morning’s Post Standard.
Ten days later, rallying around their State assemblyman, Horace M. Stone, cottage owners held a large and well publicized protest meeting at Heath Grove. Their main objection to the sale was that “the people who have enjoyed the lake as a playground and summer resort have certain inalienable rights to continue enjoying the spot as a natural resource of the state.” They also argued that since the State was showing an interest in developing public parks, it was foolish of them to think of selling off what was “a natural state park that doesn’t cost a cent” (though there was no public access to the lake). Third, they claimed that the lake might conceivably be needed as a feeder if a new “All American” canal were to be built following the route of the old Erie Canal. Fourth, they thought that the sale would set a precedent that would endanger every lake in the state. Finally, they insisted that the state owed the several hundred lake shore residents more consideration than a private utility (which served 22,000 homes).
More compelling than their arguments were the powerful men joining the protesters. Along with Assemblyman Stone were former Lieutenant Governor Edward Schoeneck, who owned a cottage on the lake; supervisors from Camillus, Onondaga, Marcellus, Otisco, and Spafford; L. Earl Higbee, a prominent attorney; Melvin L. King, an important local architect; the Syracuse Herald, and the Onondaga County Board of Supervisors. Their combined weight convinced the governor to overrule the Department of Public Works and cancel the sale indefinitely. (25)
Control over the dam brought New York Water Service under fire a third time. Low water levels in Nine Mile Creek in early August 1939 forced the Crown Woolen mill to close and lay off 300 workers. V. S. Kenyon, secretary of the Crown Mill, blamed the Water Service for the closing and implied that a minor compromise on the part of the Water Service would allow them to reopen. New York Water’s local general manager Albert A. Korves responded by pointing out that the Crown Mills sold its rights to the Water Service in 1931, and that since those payments were “ample to enable them to operate their plants without the use of the waters in Nine Mile Creek,” the water company could hardly be blamed if mill workers lost their jobs when the money went to other purposes. Besides, twice as much water was going into Nine Mile as into the Water Service’s pipeline. (26)
The Onondaga Water Service’s reputation with the public through these episodes was not enhanced by the nature of its ownership. On December 12, 1926 the New York Water Service Corporation, which was in turn controlled by the Federal Water Service Corporation, bought a controlling interest in Syracuse Suburban Water Company and changed the name to the Onondaga Water Service. Then in April 1929, a holding company called United Power, Gas and Water company or Tri Utilities obtained control of the Federal Water Service and People’s Light and Power Company, thus stacking a third holding company over Onondaga Water Service.
Utility holding companies in general were under attack at the time and the Federal Water Service was investigated by the House of Representatives committee. Tri Utilities collapsed at the end of August 1931 and went into receivership. Federal Water Service was separated from the others in February 1932 when Chase National and Central Hanover Banks bought its voting stock. The banks then auctioned Federal Water Service stock. In the meantime, New York Water Service was reorganized. The Onondaga Water Service was merged into New York Water Service and functioned from then on as one plant in a centrally managed company. (27)
Surprisingly, the Syracuse plant of the New York Water Service escaped public censure for termination of service for non-payment during the Great Depression. The only “turn-off” of the decade that received any notice was the municipal airport in Amboy, and that was ordered by the Mayor of Syracuse and carried out by his Parks Commissioner when private companies there got $800 behind in payments ($9000 in 2000). Under the original contract between the City and the Water Service, the City guaranteed a minimum return and was responsible for unpaid accounts. (28)
Perhaps the Water Service earned some credit with the public during the great floods of March 1936. Heavy rains and high winds caused severe flooding in the Onondaga Valley and along Onondaga Lake. However, the greatest local danger was to Marcellus and Camillus when strong south winds and heavy rain threatened to break up Otisco ice and send it over the spillway. Residents of the two villages feared the ice would jam Nine Mile Creek. The Water Service kept gates closed as much as they dared and lined the top of the dam and spillway with sandbags, holding back most of the water—which reached 13 inches above the dam marker—and all of the ice. (29)
As the Water Service passed through the 1930s, time began exposing the physical weakness of the system. Low pressure, leaks, increasing demand, and, in one neighborhood, worms forced the Water Service to replace undersized mains. (30) Transmission main breaks revealed the impossibility of maintaining regular service with a single transmission line and inadequate storage.
The first major break occurred on the 16-inch line feeding Liverpool in June 1930. It took more than two days to repair and caused the temporary closing of a major railroad line when the water weakened its bridge crossing. The second, in August 1931, was on a 24-inch line. Though it was repaired in less than 12 hours, hundreds were out of water or had low pressure, according to the Herald. When the line to Liverpool broke again in February 1936, the Mayor of Liverpool ordered the old village spring system reactivated; otherwise 800 families would have been out of water during the 24 hours it took to make repairs. (31)
America’s entry into World War II demonstrated that not only was New York Water incapable of maintaining service during emergency repairs, they also were not willing or able to meet heavy industrial demand. When Onondaga Water Service was absorbed by New York Water, it became part of a highly centralized organization. Everything but emergency repairs had to have the prior approval of the main office, and even emergencies had to be justified down to the penny.
Inter-company correspondence indicates that either overall profits were down or that money that should have been reinvested in replacements and improvements was siphoned off. When an ailing pump at Otisco was replaced shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was not junked or left in place as a standby. Instead it was sent to the Bayshore plant as their “new” pump.
The Otisco Lake dam site was fenced for the first time because of orders from the War (now “Defense”) Department. Correspondence dated 1942 over a supply line to a new industrial park (the Carrier line) indicates a determination to spend as little as possible. They argued that because the industrial park represented wartime demand and not a steady customer they should rely on the City to make up short-falls on a regular basis. By 1953, demand on this line was causing low pressure problems on the eastern end of the system. (32)
After the war, New York Water’s financial condition appeared to be critical. Construction of a 36-inch main west of the Fairmount reservoir was halted when the contractor was not paid by the New York office. General Auditor, C. B. Myers, sent them a priority system for submitting vouchers; they were instructed to put red stickers on the bills that had to be paid on time! (33)
Nor were they able to oblige water districts literally begging for their services. In 1940, the West Genesee Water Service approached them about supplying Westvale with water, but ended up having to turn to the Village of Solvay. In 1945, Solvay notified them they could no longer supply them. Albert Korves of the Syracuse office of New York Water then began a series of memos urging New York to authorize taking it over. West Genesee Water Service served 458 customers directly and was linked to the Taunton Water District, which consumed 4½ million gal/yr. Serving them would cost New York Water a storage tank, a booster station, and 6000 ft of mains to connect them with Otisco water. This was more than the main office was willing to spend.
In 1946, New York Water went before the State Water Power Commission to fight unsuccessfully an order to supply Westvale on a wholesale basis. Even after they lost this case they stalled on making adequate provision for service. In 1950, the New York office finally authorized replacing the 2-inch line supplying the district with an 8-inch line—because they were forced to by complaints to the Health Department and the State Public Service Commission. (34)
Supply to the housing tracts springing up after the War was also badly handled. Though use of 2-inch mains was restricted by the Public Service Commission’s requirement that all homes be within 500 feet of a hydrant, and though New York Water had problems with 2-inch mains in the 1930s, it began laying 2-inch galvanized on a regular basis. (35)
The post-War boom put a strain on not just equipment, but on the supply of water. In 1945, New York Water got permission to raise the dam and draw up to 16 million gal/day from the lake. This was not enough. In 1948 and again in 1951 and 1952, New York Water began drilling test wells—first by the dam and later along Nine Mile Creek. In every case the water proved to be too hard to be usable. (36)
All of New York Water’s shortcomings came to the surface when they filed for a 15.72% rate increase with the Public Service Commission in 1950. Eight communities served by the New York Water Service filed objections and sent representatives to the hearings that began in March. The Villages of Solvay, Liverpool, North Syracuse, and the towns of Geddes, Salina, Cicero, Clay, and Fire District #2 in the Town of Salina were mainly concerned because, while New York Water pumped an average of 10 million gal/day, it had storage for less than 6 million gallons. In the event of a break on the single line between Marcellus and the Fairmount reservoir, all of those communities would be out of water within 12 hours. Though New York Water had three connections with the City of Syracuse, their agreement limited the water company to 1 million gal/day from that source. (37)
The construction of the New York State Thruway in 1951 made the lack of storage facilities especially critical. Transmission lines had to be relocated in several places, leading to heavy dependence on City connections and low pressure. New York Water dealt with the relocations and major scheduled repairs by running notices in the newspapers listing schedules and areas to be shut off or put on low pressure. (38)
By this time New York Water Service’s operation in Onondaga County was running on borrowed time. Soon after New York Water lost its rate increase petition in 1951, the Onondaga County Water Authority was formed. After ordering a series of studies looking for a new source of water, the Authority settled on Otisco Lake and began condemnation proceedings. New York Water Service’s Syracuse plant was formally acquired by the Authority on December 29, 1955.
1. Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness and Cities in Revolt.
M. N. Baker, The Quest For Pure Water. NY AWWA, 1949.
Nelson M. Blake, Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1956.
2. Journal, July 11, 1868, p 8.
Herald, March 20, 1931.
Map of Otisco Lake, microfilm roll #1.
Journal, July 25, 1868, p.7.
3. Herald, April 13, 1907, p.6.
4. Microfilm #1; Herald, February 5, 1909, p.6.
5. Herald, April 13, 1907, p.6; Herald, June 18, 1907.
6. Herald, August 19, 1907, p.6. Herald, February 5, 1909 p.6.
7. Herald, May 1, 1907, p.3. Herald May 7, 1907, p.6.
8. Corporate Handbook of the New York Water Service Corporation Syracuse Plant.
9. Herald, January 9, 1909, p.3; January 15, 1909, p.6; February 5, 1909, p.6, May 1, 1907, p.13.
10. Post-Standard April 30, 1910; Herald, March 17, 1909, p.6.
11. Post Standard, April 30, 1910; August 9, 1928.
12. Plans of 1908-1909 revised to show as constructed; Maps of property and flood rights to be acquired, microfilm reels #1 and #2
13. Otisco Lake Log, 1910-1933.
14. Otisco Log.
15. Otisco Log; ON files @500, 508, 515, 524, (film 298).
16. ON 501, film 298.
17. ON 544 and 547.
18. ON 537.
19. ON 523, 533, 545, 553; Herald November 8, 1928.
20. ON 536, 521, 554.
21. ON 587, 597.
22. Herald, August 8, 1928.
23. Post-Standard, Jan. 30, 1931; Feb. 4, 1931; Feb. 13, 1931; Feb. 26, 1931; Feb. 27, 1931; Herald, Feb. 27, 1931; Mar. 15, 1931; Mar. 20, 1931.
24. Herald, May 13, 1931, May 14, 1931; Post Standard, July 2, 1931, July 14, 1931.
25. Post Standard, July 3, 1931, July 13, 1931; Journal, July 10, 1931; July 13, 1931; Post Standard, July 14, 1931; Journal, July 14, 1931, July 15, 1931, Post Standard, July 15, 1931; Post Standard, July 16, 1931; Journal, July 16,1 931 ; Herald, July 17, 1931, Post Standard July 16 1931; July 19, Journal, July 20, 1931; Post Standard, July 14, 1931; Journal, August 14, 931; Post Standard, August 1, 1931; Journal, August 3, 1931; Post Standard, July 30, 1931 and August 4, 1931; Herald, August 5, 1931 and August 6, 1931.
26 Post Standard, August 3, 1939; Post Standard, August 4, 1939; Korves press release; Herald, August 5, 1939.
27 Corporate Handbook of the New York Water Service; Philadelphia Evening_ Bulletin, April 11, 1931; Journal, Sept. 1, 1931; Wall Street Journal, October 7, 1931; New York Times, Feb. 28, 1932; Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 1932.
28 Journal, April 24, 1931; Post Standard, April 25, 1931.
29 Post Standard, March 23, 1936; Journal, March 23, 1936; Journal March 24, 1936.
30 Post Standard, August 6, 1936; Herald, same date.
3l Herald, June 6, 1930; Post Standard, June 8, 1930; Herald, August 10, 1931; Post Standard, Feb. 6, 1936.
32 ON 606, 608
33 ON 638
34 ON 718, 858.
35 ON 834, 876.
36 ON 647, 672, 874.
37 Post Standard, May 23, 1950, p.6; Post Standard., June 30, 1950, p.6.
38 ON 722, 723, 1028, 1068, 1016, 870, 875.