Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainable Development

Startup Insider: Natural Systems Engineering

August 29, 2014 at 10:41 AM

A Quiet Champion in the World’s Largest Lake Cleanup

Written By Aishik Barua || Short Report

SYRACUSE, NEW YORK -- Onondaga Lake, located in central upstate New York, is widely regarded as one of the most polluted lakes in the United States. As reported by National Public Radio, the lake “was hammered by a one-two punch: raw and partially treated sewage from the city [of Syracuse] and its suburbs, and a century's worth of industrial dumping.”

RI-Figure-1-4.gifNow in the final stage of a $1 billion remediation and cleanup, Onondaga Lake has been called an “environmental comeback in progress” as the community rallies behind efforts to transform a toxic environmental liability into a showcase for innovative environmental revitalization utilizing public private partnerships and cutting edge green infrastructure technologies.

These efforts are part of Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s award-winning initiative, Save the Rain, to improve the water quality of Onondaga Lake and its tributaries. To date, the County has advanced more than 175 distinct green infrastructure projects.

Under Mahoney’s leadership, Onondaga County is becoming a national model for the implementation of a balanced approach to stormwater management – a combination of smart gray investments with innovative green infrastructure solutions.

As reported by the Post-Standard and, Onondaga County’s efforts to clean-up the lake have been recognized by the U.S. Water Alliance, a nonprofit educational group that promotes water sustainability, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Green Building Council, and others for the innovative program to use green roofs, porous pavements and other green methods to offset the need for new sewers and treatment plants.

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A major success to date for Save the Rain is that projects have been undertaken on both public and private property, which requires the active and significant involvement and participation of private property owners throughout the City of Syracuse.

Quietly spearheading many of these public-private partnerships is Syracuse-based boutique engineering firm, Natural Systems Engineering (NSE), which specializes in environmental sustainability with a focus on water resources and energy.

Of the 49 green infrastructure projects completed on private property and funded by Onondaga County’s Green Infrastructure Fund, 26 were completed or had their designs completed by NSE – that’s over 50% of all projects completed on private property. With 16 additional projects in the pipeline, it appears that NSE’s work is far from over.

NSE’s projects, which have been awarded roughly $6 million in County funding, address roughly 770,000 square feet in run-off producing impervious surfaces – the equivalent of over 13 American football fields – and will result in roughly 18.8 million gallons of storm water runoff mitigated annually.Technologies designed and employed include porous pavements, bioretention areas, green roofs, bioswales, and rain gardens. 

NSE founder and principal engineer, Kyle Thomas, has been a quiet champion and unsung hero of the Save the Rain program implementing projects throughout the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County.

NSE’s green infrastructure projects located at the Onondaga Commons Urban Revitalization Initiatives in the City’s Westside – conceptualized in partnership with Short Enterprises founder W. Michael Short – amount to the largest privately pursued green infrastructure projects in Onondaga County.

“You simply can’t ask for a better partner on a project than Kyle Thomas,” said Short.

Not only are some of NSE’s projects noteworthy for their sheer size and impressive scope, like Onondaga Commons, they are also notable for their complexity and groundbreaking nature.

One project in particular that NSE is working to find a home for is a truly innovative rainwater harvesting system that will provide both potable and non-potable water for the building in which it is installed. This would be one of the first known projects in New York State where rainwater would be harvested and purified for domestic purposes, according to Thomas.

What makes Thomas and his firm especially appealing is that they practice what they preach. Thomas, for example, installed in his home one of the same geothermal systems that he would recommend to clients.

“The project site is located in a densely developed aged urban setting, characterized by single and two-family homes separated by 8 feet or less,” said Thomas. “These conditions necessitate a vertical [geothermal] well configuration but access for a drill rig, proper well spacing, and avoidance of underground and overhead utilities all posed a challenges for drilling.”

“The area is also served by natural gas provided by a utility, so payback vs. the baseline heating using natural gas will be unattractive vs. other alternatives unless the project is soundly value-engineered,” Thomas continued. “Electric power for the ground source heat pumps will provided by a rooftop solar array and whereas many geothermal applications are undertaken at rural sites, where other desirable attributes of sustainability such as development density and transportation are not achieved, this project, at its conclusion, will represent a case study for implementation of ground source heat pump technology at an urban location where other positive environmental outcomes are also achieved.”

With so many exciting projects under his belt, in the pipeline, and a growing interest from municipalities to hire NSE to design and implement much larger green infrastructure projects, NSE is making a name for itself as a true sustainable startup success story.

For more information on Natural Systems Engineering, visit them online at

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