Date of Award


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MS)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


Martin T Auer


The time course of lake recovery after a reduction in external loading of nutrients is often controlled by conditions in the sediment. Remediation of eutrophication is hindered by the presence of legacy organic carbon deposits, that exert a demand on the terminal electron acceptors of the lake and contribute to problems such as internal nutrient recycling, absence of sediment macrofauna, and flux of toxic metal species into the water column. Being able to quantify the timing of a lake’s response requires determination of the magnitude and lability, i.e., the susceptibility to biodegradation, of the organic carbon within the legacy deposit. This characterization is problematic for organic carbon in sediments because of the presence of different fractions of carbon, which vary from highly labile to refractory.

The lability of carbon under varied conditions was tested with a bioassay approach. It was found that the majority of the organic material found in the sediments is conditionally-labile, where mineralization potential is dependent on prevailing conditions. High labilities were noted under oxygenated conditions and a favorable temperature of 30 °C. Lability decreased when oxygen was removed, and was further reduced when the temperature was dropped to the hypolimnetic average of 8° C . These results indicate that reversible preservation mechanisms exist in the sediment, and are able to protect otherwise labile material from being mineralized under in situ conditions.

The concept of an active sediment layer, a region in the sediments in which diagenetic reactions occur (with nothing occurring below it), was examined through three lines of evidence. Initially, porewater profiles of oxygen, nitrate, sulfate/total sulfide, ETSA (Electron Transport System Activity- the activity of oxygen, nitrate, iron/manganese, and sulfate), and methane were considered. It was found through examination of the porewater profiles that the edge of diagenesis occurred around 15-20 cm. Secondly, historical and contemporary TOC profiles were compared to find the point at which the profiles were coincident, indicating the depth at which no change has occurred over the (13 year) interval between core collections. This analysis suggested that no diagenesis has occurred in Onondaga Lake sediment below a depth of 15 cm. Finally, the time to 99% mineralization, the t99, was viewed by using a literature estimate of the kinetic rate constant for diagenesis. A t99 of 34 years, or approximately 30 cm of sediment depth, resulted for the slowly decaying carbon fraction. Based on these three lines of evidence , an active sediment layer of 15-20 cm is proposed for Onondaga Lake, corresponding to a time since deposition of 15-20 years.

While a large legacy deposit of conditionally-labile organic material remains in the sediments of Onondaga Lake, it becomes clear that preservation, mechanisms that act to shield labile organic carbon from being degraded, protects this material from being mineralized and exerting a demand on the terminal electron acceptors of the lake. This has major implications for management of the lake, as it defines the time course of lake recovery following a reduction in nutrient loading.