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Low lake levels reveal a messy Owasco Inlet and bay

Low winter lake levels have revealed more side effects of summer flooding events — a very muddy, debris- and foam-filled inlet at the southern end of Owasco Lake. 

Owasco Lake Watershed Specialist Andrew Snell took drone photos of the inlet on Jan. 29, showing a sediment plume billowing into the lake surrounded by a soupy white foam. Parts of trees are scattered at the mouth and into the lake, too.

The trees are trapped in the sediment, but Snell said if the waters start to rise, currents could move them into other areas of the lake where they could become a public safety hazard and cause damage to boats. 

The fact that there are trees littering the bay, too, shows how much streambank erosion is playing a part at the inlet.

"We've noticed that when left unmanaged, large trees throughout the riparian area of the Inlet are continuously being undermined from strong flood velocities and toppling over," Snell said in an email to The Citizen. "The trees can creat(e) massive channel snags, often redirecting or backing up flows, possibly further destabilizing the streambanks and/or flooding low-lying areas."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has jurisdiction to remove debris from the inlet up to where the mouth meets Owasco Lake. The DEC said Tuesday that that responsibility is part of the Moravia Flood Damage Reduction Project. The agency said it is aware that woody debris can collect near the mouth of the lake, but it is not aware of any current efforts to remove trees outside of the boundaries of the flood project.

"If it is determined that there is a threat to water quality, human health, or increased risk of flooding, DEC will work with all partners to undertake efforts to remove debris," the agency added. 

Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council Chair Ed Wagner said he's been in communication with the DEC over the last year about trees down in the inlet, but not about the latest conditions at the mouth of the lake. He expects the DEC and others will work on clearing the inlet in the spring. 

Snell added that he's finding all kinds of garbage along the shoreline, and cleaning the area up would be a good project for volunteers. He also pointed out that there is a litter collection box at the county's kayak launch where visitors can place any garbage they may find.

Gallery: Owasco Inlet

Democratic forum story

AUBURN — Democrats from three central New York counties have designated a candidate to challenge U.S. Rep. John Katko in the 24th Congressional District race.

The Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne county Democratic committees endorsed Dana Balter at a joint meeting Wednesday in Auburn. Balter beat out three other Democrats for the designation. The other Democratic candidates in the race are Anne Messenger, William Bass and Scott Comegys.

"I think Dana is well-positioned to hold John Katko to account for his record of voting over 90 percent with this White House," said Ian Phillips, chairman of the Cayuga County Democratic Committee. 

The designation vote followed a 45-minute forum featuring Balter and Messenger. Bass and Comegys didn't participate in the forum. The committees believed Bass and Comegys lacked the campaign infrastructure and weren’t included in the discussion. 

During the forum, Balter and Messenger answered questions on a range of issues. Both criticized the federal tax law that Katko supported at the end of last year. Balter said the measure, which President Donald Trump signed in December, would largely benefit the wealthy. She prefers a different approach to tax policy.

“The way that we create prosperity for everybody is by invigorating the middle class,” Balter said.

Balter and Messenger also dismissed the claim that Katko is a moderate. Since being elected in 2014, Katko has highlighted his independence and bipartisan legislation. One of the main examples he cites is his opposition to legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act without a suitable replacement.

Messenger said she initially believed Katko was a moderate. But after reviewing his overall voting record and seeing who he receives campaign donations from, her view of Katko changed.

“The facts and the data do not play out,” she said.

The candidates didn’t have any significant policy disagreements. Both agreed that Planned Parenthood should be funded. They criticized Katko for at first pledging to preserve federal support of the reproductive health care organization and then later voting to cut off funding.

Balter said Planned Parenthood is a critical resource for women across the U.S.

“We cannot take those services away from the most vulnerable women in our communities,” she said. “It is unconscionable.”

The pair also found common ground on health care. They support Medicare for all, which would establish a single-payer health insurance system in the U.S. It would be a dramatic shift from the current health insurance system.

Messenger explained why health care is a major issue for her. She recalled her experiences with her husband, mother and sister — all of whom had some sort of serious health ailment. She pledged to ensure that “good health care benefits are first accessible and affordable for everyone in this country.”

Balter addressed one concern with a single-payer system — that it would hurt businesses. A Medicare for all system, she contends, would actually benefit employers.

“If we have a single-payer system, entrepreneurs are free to be entrepreneurs,” she said.

One of the final questions of the night came from the audience. An attendee asked Balter and Messenger what makes them the candidate most likely to beat Katko in November. 

Messenger cited her community presence and accomplishments in central New York. 

"I believe that I represent the core of central New York," she said. 

Balter offered a broader theme. She mentioned the successful Democratic campaigns in Alabama, New Jersey and Virginia last year. A major reason why those candidates were successful is the grassroots support for their candidacies. 

As a member of the CNY Solidarity Coalition, Balter has been one of the leading activists protesting Trump's policies and urging Katko to hold town hall meetings. She believes the key to victory will be tapping into the grassroots energy behind many of the nationwide protests. 

"I believe I'm the candidate to do that," she said. 

With the Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne committee process completed, the focus now shifts to the Onondaga County Democratic Committee. The Onondaga committee is the largest of the four county organizations in the 24th district. 

The Onondaga County Democratic Committee will meet Feb. 24 to designate a candidate in the race against Katko. 

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Driver arrested after car crashes into Famous Footwear store in Auburn

An Auburn man was arrested Tuesday night after crashing his car into the Famous Footwear store in Auburn, police said.

Joshua LaClair, 31, of 19 Frazee St., was charged with second-degree unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, a misdemeanor, and leaving the scene of an accident, a violation. 

Auburn Deputy Police Chief Roger Anthony said police responded to the accident at 9:13 p.m. Upon arrival, officers discovered LaClair had crashed his four-door Pontiac sedan into the store at 217 Grant Ave. No one was injured. 

The Auburn Fire Department, Auburn City Ambulance and Auburn Code Enforcement Office were also called to the scene. Assistant Fire Chief Bill DiFabio said approximately 30 feet of the storefront was taken out in the crash. However, he said there did not appear to be any structural damage to the building.

Following the crash, Anthony said LaClair fled the scene on foot, leaving an adult female passenger in the car. LaClair was located a short time later and taken to Cayuga County Jail on a violation of probation bench warrant out of Auburn City Court. 

LaClair was convicted of third-degree grand larceny, third-degree welfare fraud and misuse of food stamps in 2012 and sentenced to four months of weekends in jail and five years probation. Anthony said LaClair's license had also been suspended for driving while ability impaired and failure to pay a fine. Although the cause of the crash was unclear, the deputy chief said there was no evidence of intoxication Tuesday night. 

LaClair was issued an appearance ticket and told to appear in court Feb. 23. 

'Think about the bird': NY officials warn enthusiasts not to stress out wildlife

While winter is a prime time to bird watch in upstate New York, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is cautioning the public not to flock too close. 

Winter is already a tough time for birds, the DEC said in a release Wednesday. It's harder to find and capture food, and conserving energy is essential for survival. If a photographer or birder gets too close and causes the bird to flush, or fly off, the bird is wasting valuable energy.

"They're out there trying to stay alive, and to me, that's a serious situation," said David Marsh, who coordinates the Montezuma Winter Raptor Survey. "The biggest thing for people, who are trying to get a closer experience, is to put themselves in the bird's position, and just remember, it's not a smart thing or a kind thing to do to stress them out. Think about the bird."

Marsh leads the raptor survey, which documents the number of wintering birds in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. Great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, harrier hawks, short-eared owls, bald eagles and many other kinds of birds of prey have been spotted over the last few months. 

Outside the survey area, Marsh said, people have seen snowy owls. These beautiful white and brown speckled birds summer in the arctic, but during winter migration months have been found in upstate New York. Marsh said in northern Canandaigua, there was one sitting in a field, likely hunting. People were observing far back when a woman pulled up in a car, got out with a camera and walked right up to the owl. 

The bird flew off.

"It killed the situation for the people who had been respecting it, and you know, it stresses it (the bird)," he said. 

The DEC added that if a bird is disturbed repeatedly during the winter, it could lose enough energy that it may not make it back to the tundra for the spring. This could result in its death.

"We are fortunate to have rare and beautiful birds spending time in New York during the winter, including the vulnerable Snowy Owl," said Audubon New York Director of Bird Conservation Jillian Liner, in a press release. "We hope that birders and photographers will do their part to ensure the safety and success of these species."

The DEC continued that birders should not trespass on private property, should park their cars off roads when bird watching, and pay attention to traffic when crossing roads. For more tips on safe wildlife observing practices, visit