Water quality concerns, extreme weather, tourism developments and a bunch of high school state titles were among the stories making the biggest impact on life in the Cayuga County area during 2017. Based on surveys of The Citizen staff and online readers, here are the 10 biggest local stories of the past 12 months.
Call it a repeat.
The biggest local story of 2016 was the infiltration of algal toxins into the public water supply drawn from Owasco Lake. In 2017, the story continued to make major headlines, with much of the news revolving around efforts to deal with the problem.
In January, responding to outcry from the public and local elected officials for help from the state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to include $2 million in the state budget to allow the city of Auburn and town of Owasco to install new activated-carbon equipment for their water filtration systems. That work was eventually funded and completed at both facilities, and the systems were put to the test in late summer when harmful algal blooms returned in a big way to Owasco Lake. Initial indications are that the programs worked well to keep the drinking water safe in 2017.
Meanwhile, the harmful algal bloom problem expanded well beyond Owasco Lake's public water supply. Toxins were detected in raw water drawn from Skaneateles Lake, the source for numerous towns in Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse. Cayuga Lake also experienced significant blooms this summer. In fact, dozens of water bodies throughout the state were affected.
The outbreaks of the summer were one reason behind a new proposal coming from Cuomo. Earlier this month, the governor said he will call for $65 million in state funding to combat blooms in 12 lakes around the state, including the cluster of Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles lakes.
Meanwhile, efforts by local officials to address long-term water quality concerns in the Owasco Lake Watershed moved forward. A multi-year effort to restore the Owasco Flats wetlands at the southern end of the lake finally secured state and federal approvals. The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council launched the process to create and implement a Nine Element Watershed Plan to address non-point sources of contamination. The council, working with the Cayuga County Planning and Economic Development Office, has established a steering committee that's working on a revision of the watershed's rules and regulations.
How all of these efforts and more play out will likely be among the biggest stories of 2018.
For freshman state Sen. Pam Helming, the most valuable moments of her first year in office weren't spent in Albany. It was the time she spent with constituents in her six-county Finger Lakes district.
Helming, R-Canandaigua, had her share of achievements in 2017. She singled out passage of a $45 million aid package for communities affected by flooding along Lake Ontario as her top legislative accomplishment. The bill, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, provides $15 million for homeowners, $15 million for businesses and $15 million for municipalities to make infrastructure repairs.
While the grant process remains open for businesses and municipalities, applications for the homeowner aid were due in September.
"The money is flowing from (Empire State Development, the state's chief economic development agency) out to the residents so that they could take care of much-needed critical repairs," Helming said during a phone interview before Christmas. "They are able to get some of their work done before the hard frost and freezing sets in."
Helming had other legislation that passed both houses and reached the governor's desk. Cuomo recently signed Helming's bill requiring mandatory alcohol and drug testing of drivers involved in serious motor vehicle crashes. He vetoed another that would have given peace officer status to uniformed marine patrol officers in Seneca County. Similar bills have been vetoed by Cuomo in the past.
The veto was the only bill sponsored by Helming that passed both houses and didn't receive final approval from the governor. She said Cuomo signed 10 of the 11 bills she sponsored that were approved by the Assembly and Senate.
"I'm very proud," she said. "From a legislative aspect, I think we've been very, very successful for the district."
In her first 12 months as a state senator, Helming said one of her big takeaways is how important it is to be active and visible in the district while being an "outspoken advocate" in Albany. She learned the importance of being persistent, especially when pushing for more funding for rural communities and support for corrections officers, firefighters and local law enforcement.
She highlighted her work in securing funds for her district in the 2017-18 state budget.
"What I have learned is it's important to fight for funding in the budget and then it's equally important to fight to get the funding back out of the budget and into our local communities so that they can do the things that are needed to promote the community," she said.
But it's what Helming has done since the legislative session ended in June that she believes has better prepared her for the work ahead in Albany.
Beginning over the summer, Helming held 13 mobile office hours throughout her six-county district, including three events in Cayuga County. (She held office hours in Port Byron, Springport and Sterling.)
The mobile office hours give Helming an opportunity to learn more about the priorities of the communities she represents. But the events are designed to help constituents. She estimates that her office helped thousands of constituents with different state-related issues.
Helming hasn't limited her in-district travel to the mobile office hours. She has visited businesses, farms, local government agencies and schools across the district. In November, she visited the Auburn Fire Department and Currier Plastics, an Auburn-based manufacturing company.
"I learn so much," she said. "I feel so much more prepared, better prepared, going back to this (legislative) session than I did in 2017 just because of how much time I've spent out in the community listening to the people I represent and better understanding what their priorities are and what their needs are."
Helming will return to Albany this week for the start of the 2018 session. The session begins Wednesday with Cuomo's annual State of the State address.