Micron’s chip manufacturing plant could use as many as 20 million gallons of water per day, drawing from Lake Ontario.

Much of that water will flow into the Syracuse suburb of Clay from 30 miles away as a result of planning by County Executive John Mulroy and other officials elected in the 1960s. 

Former SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry President Cornelius Murphy, who worked at the firm O’Brien & Gere, recalled to Central Current the efforts to create a pipeline to bring water from the Great Lakes into Onondaga County.

At the time, the county was growing.

From 1950 until 1970, the population boomed by nearly 40% and the county needed water in the suburbs. 

According to a history of OCWA, Central New York’s water authority, a $50 million residential construction project was halted in 1960 in the county’s suburbs because of a lack of public water.

Mulroy and other representatives had a solution: They created the Onondaga County Metropolitan Water Board to oversee the creation of a new water treatment facility, pump stations, storage facilities and a 54-inch transmission main that carries water from Lake Ontario to a reservoir in Clay. 

The new system became operable in 1967 and carried 36 million gallons of water per day from the lake to a terminal reservoir in Clay. It now carries 50 million gallons per day. 

Murphy worked at O’Brien & Gere (now part of Ramboll) while the company put the transmission main in. While he didn’t directly work on the project, he got to see it develop. 

Murphy has a background in wastewater treatment and environmental resources engineering. 

He answered some questions from Central Current about the project that was meant to seed the region’s expansion in the 1960s. He discussed how Micron can reduce its potential impact on the water supply. 

Take us through the project to get water from Lake Ontario to Clay.

What was formerly the Metropolitan Water Board — this goes back into the 60s — they initiated a project that involved putting in a 54-inch pipeline from Lake Ontario to a terminal reservoir in Clay, along with a water treatment plant.

It was designed to take water from Lake Ontario. And that was being done because of planning for the future.

Up until that point, OCWA took their water from Otisco Lake and the city took their water from Skaneateles Lake. When the county put in that 54-inch water main, that transmission main, it gave tremendous capacity to move water from Lake Ontario.

Of course, we all know Lake Ontario holds about 20% of all the fresh water on the face of the earth, so the planning at the time was this’ll probably meet the needs of the county and other counties that were dependent upon the Metropolitan Water Board for water, almost forever. 

What are the potential effects of a chip fab plant on the water supply?

I think there’s tremendous capacity for the chip fab plant from Lake Ontario through that 54-inch force main. I don’t see any short-term reasons or medium-range impacts on the use of the water for other purposes for Central New York.

A 54-inch force main just can move one heck of a lot of water. In cases in Arizona, the chip fab plants that I’ve been familiar with, a lot of them put in what’s called reverse osmosis. It’s a treatment system on water so they can use water in loops and they can reduce the demand potentially on the raw water supply. So down the road, way down the road, if a backup was ever required, the chip fab plant could put in reverse osmosis and recycle part of the water. 

A lot of the water a chip fab plant uses is for the purpose of rinsing, so when they make a computer chip, it’s a layered process.

In between those layers, they rinse the chip, characteristically anyway. A lot of the water is used as rinse water and rinse water could be — and, I’m not saying this particular institution should do this — but rinse water could be recycled by using a membrane system.

What that would do is reduce the actual contaminated portion of the water down to maybe 5% of the total flow that’s being used to rinse those chips. 

Could reverse osmosis reduce waste?

The membranes in a reverse osmosis system, it’s pretty darn selective, in that it pretty much removes just about anything in the water.

That’s because it relies on the membrane that allows the water molecules to go through and other molecules in the water are rejected.

So, I have no idea whether their process would include RO from day one — it may or it may not. But certainly that’s a technology that could be used down the road to reduce dependence on water from Lake Ontario. 

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.