AUBURN — New York State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball believes local elected officials aren't the best people to be driving changes to Owasco Lake's watershed rules.

Speaking with The Citizen Monday after an address to the New York State Grange annual session in Auburn, Ball talked about water quality in the Finger Lakes and Owasco Lake in particular. Considering Cayuga County's work to update the rules and regulations of the lake's watershed, Ball said he would support "clear thinking" and "measurable steps," but called on local officials to rely on their county soil and water conservation districts for such efforts. 

"I'd rather see the soil and water conservation people, who understand the issue fully, are trained and educated about the issue, rather than a nice group of people that just got elected, try to come up with criteria," Ball said. "(This) is why we have our soil and water conservation districts. They're a great resource. They do a great job for us. We need to empower them."

Cayuga County has recently begun the process to update Owasco Lake's 1984 set of rules through two public meetings and more recently, meetings with various stakeholder groups including the agricultural community, lake shore owners and advocates, elected officials and the business and commercial contractors community. 

The steering committee guiding public outreach and gathering potential revisions to the document is made up of five elected officials including Cayuga County legislators Michael Didio and Aileen McNabb-Coleman, Scipio town board member Leslie Baxter, Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner and Auburn City Councilor Debby McCormick. Also on the steering committee are Cayuga County Health Department Director Kathleen Cuddy, Owasco Watershed Lake Association member Ken Post, dairy farmer Greg Rejman and crop farmer Jim Sierzenga. 

The final draft of the rules and regulations will be reviewed by various state agencies, but the ultimate authority for their adoption lies with the state Department of Health's Division of Water Resources.

Ball said local officials must acknowledge, too, that farms are not the only player in the watershed when it comes to runoff troubles. There are residential problems such as faulty and aging septic systems, he pointed out, that should be considered.

"The issue isn't just farms," he said. "The issue is a lot of things, a lot of communities all around the watershed as well, so we need to take the 30,000-foot view of what's going on."

The state, Ball added, has devoted a myriad of resources to helping farms though he said "it never seems to be enough." He specifically pointed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's inclusion of $17 million in this year's Environmental Protection Fund devoted to the Nonpoint Source Program. He also referenced $50 million in the budget for manure storage for concentrated animal feeding operations. Often referred to as CAFOs, those farms are typically large dairy farms with 300 or more cows and are regulated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Ball said he hopes the manure storage effort will eventually halt winter spreading of manure. 

For smaller farms, which are not regulated by the DEC, Ball urged them to get a nutrient management plan.

"Regardless if you're a Christmas tree farm, a vegetable farm, or a dairy farm, you need to be mindful of the way you manage nutrients in the water," Ball said. "Get yourself a nutrient management plan."

Again Ball pointed to how soil and water conservation districts can help with these through the Agricultural Environmental Management program. These are voluntary-based plans, but Ball said there is financial assistance available through the state's nonpoint fund. 

During Monday's meeting at the Auburn Holiday Inn — the 145th yearly session of the New York State Grange — members had a chance to ask the commissioner some questions. Some raised concerns over the rising cost of transporting milk, insurance coverage when the public makes farm visits, and the potential affects of the hemp industry in a state where marijuana growth is illegal.

"We're looking at a broad variety of things," said New York State Grange President Stephen C. Coye. 

While the organization, which focuses on agricultural and rural communities, had yet to vote on specific issues as of Monday morning, Coye said he expected members to specifically discuss the farm bill, a federal law covering multiple agricultural issues, and milk pricing. Following the Auburn stop, Ball said he was headed to Morrisville for a farm bill listening session with DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. 

"A big part of our rural social fabric in this community is dairy farming," he said. "This is a group that thinks about issues a lot, and it's kind of precious to get them all in one place and renew the friendships, No. 1, and also to talk about the issues."

While the state Grange celebrated its 145th session, the national organization celebrated its 150th. The session began on Friday and is expected to continue until about noon Tuesday.

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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County Government Reporter