AURELIUS — A five-page, outdated and ill-defined document listing the rules and regulations of the Owasco Lake watershed appeared to be a mystery to many at a public meeting Monday night. 

Some attendees didn't know the rules existed and didn't know that the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program, paid for by city of Auburn and town of Owasco residents, has the authority to enforce those rules. Some questioned the legality of the inspectors, who have the ability to enter any property in the watershed to investigate potential water quality violations.

But even those who knew of the rules — which include things like limitations on where septic systems and manure storage can be installed, or prohibit human waste from entering the lake — were miffed by some of the language or lack thereof in the document that aims to protect the source of drinking water for more than half of Cayuga County's residents.

"This is really about protecting drinking water," said Steve Lynch, director of the Cayuga County Department of Planning and Economic Development. "That's really where the rules and regulations get their authority from."

A nine-member steering committee organized mostly through the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council, held its first public meeting on those rules and regulations at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES. The committee will gather feedback from Monday night and begin potential revisions to the document, which was last updated in 1984 and currently references a hand-drawn map of the watershed from the 1960s.

Lynch, who moderated the meeting, said he thought about posting a photo of a Time magazine cover from 1984 predicting that computers would soon be in most homes. Lynch said that now is the opportunity to examine what's there and what's not, use the best science available and input from various stakeholder groups, and create a document locally that works for the watershed, which touches Cayuga, Onondaga and Tompkins counties. 

Public discussion led to some ideas for the committee to consider including adding regulations around non-agricultural animal waste, regulating agricultural field drainage tiles, regulating the use of herbicides and pesticides, better defining terms in the document and updating the map. 

Sitting at the front of the room, Seth Jensen, director of municipal utilities for the city of Auburn, said one thing he'd like to see is a clearly defined process for watershed inspectors to follow when there's a violation. Jensen, who is one of the primary leaders amidst installation of a powder-activated carbon treatment system the state has funded at the city's water treatment plant, is on the front lines of water quality scares. Harmful blue-green algae blooms plague the lake every summer, and last year toxins released from those swaths of paint-like scum showed up in the finished drinking water, though at low levels.

That scare is what has partially spurred the rules and regulations discussion, and Patty Beer, member of the Save Owasco Now lake advocacy group, suggested the county consider a schedule for updating the document.

Jensen said the inspection program should work similarly to how police deal with a traffic violation. For example, he said, if someone is speeding that person is pulled over and issued a ticket. 

"(There needs to be) something similar to that so folks know that there's consequences associated with breaking the rules," he said.

A second public meeting aimed at reaching those residing in the southern end of the watershed will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 21 in the auditorium of Moravia High School, 68 S. Main St., Moravia.

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