A map of the Owasco Lake Watershed. The lake is the collection point for all the water in the 208-square-mile watershed.

Cayuga County Department of Planning and Economic Development

It's fair to call the handling of the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program's transfer a mess.

The program was supposed to be moved from the auspices of the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District to the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council by the start of 2018. But as that deadline grew closer, legal questions arose about the management council's bylaws and structure, as well as some logistical questions about how the program's employees pay and benefits would be effected.

The first public indication that the new year transfer was in jeopardy came last month. And then last week, the delay was confirmed when the management council and the conservation district agreed to maintain the status quo arrangement well into 2018.

But we also got a sense that the entire plan might be scrapped. Ed Wagner, the town of Owasco supervisor who is chair of the management council, had some interesting comments at the conservation district meeting: "I can foresee this being January 2019," he said of the new date for when a transfer might occur. "The reality is, if we go that far, it probably would be a cleaner transition if we waited until the following January, if we go forward at all."

Wagner said it's now possible that the program could stay permanently with the conservation district, or it could be moved to city of Auburn control instead of the watershed management council.

We believe both of those situations would be a mistake. To understand why, go back to when the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council was formed in 2010.

The three municipal government entities with the most direct oversight of the lake — the city of Auburn, town of Owasco and Cayuga County — jointly met and voted to create this new intermunicipal body that would devote its full mission to the restoration and protection of the lake. The goal was to create shared responsibility and buy-in, and the idea was to also bring more watershed communities on board so the entire watershed area would be part of the effort.

That same goal — responsible environmental stewardship of Owasco Lake — aligns perfectly with the Owasco Lake inspection program. The conservation district must focus on much more than Owasco Lake, so its oversight of inspectors can be diluted. And Auburn officials could easily struggle to work with watershed towns around the lake if inspectors report directly to the city government.

The good news is that the inspection program will continue in 2018. For all the chaos of the past couple of months, the decision to hit the pause button was smart. It's better to slow down a transition to new oversight than to rush into something and discover serious legal or operational issues to work out. 

But these issues that need to be worked out — and perhaps even some behind-the-scenes political struggles that need to be resolved — should not derail the ultimate goal of aligning Owasco Lake inspectors with the watershed management council.

The Citizen Editorial Board includes publisher Rob Forcey, managing editor Mike Dowd and executive editor Jeremy Boyer.