River advocates: Are protectors of the Weeki Wachee doing more harm than good?

Expanded parking lot and sand replenishing at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park prompt note to lawmakers.
Published March 26
Updated March 26

WEEKI WACHEE — What if the very agencies charged with protecting the Weeki Wachee River are putting it in peril?

Shannon Turbeville — a leader in efforts to protect the Weeki Wachee — sent an email this month to state lawmakers considering a $6 million river restoration. It was titled: "Neglect of public safety and resource protection.''

The Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is adding to the river's woes by expanding a parking lot, which caused a washout and exposed electrical conduit, his note said.

Making way for more public use appears to violate the park's management plan, Turbeville wrote, which limits use. And additional state actions have contributed to silt build-up in the river as sand from the park’s man-made beach at Buccaneer Bay is dumping into the headwaters of the spring-fed river, he said.

"I find it troubling the infrastructure at a state park that previously boasted itself as the third highest generator of revenue in the system has been neglected to the point it was directly impacting a natural resource,'' Turbeville wrote.

State agencies that oversee such activities — the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Park Service and the Southwest Florida Water Management District — defended their management of the park and the river.

The exposed electrical conduit created a public health and safety concern, Turbeville said. The state identified the problem six months ago, Turbeville determined from a public records request. But state officials did not arrive to fix it until last week, he said, after he sent his email to legislators, state and local officials, and the media.

Water management district official Ross Morton told Turbeville the problem was being resolved and the exposed wires were not live.

But the delay is similar to the state’s response on other river concerns, Turbeville said. He has been complaining for months about sand from Buccaneer Bay washing over the seawall and into the river. Ironically, the state has criticized Hernando County for adding sand at Rogers Park downstream on the Weeki Wachee.

Adding sand to the waterway makes no sense, Turbeville argued, when the state's planned restoration would remove silt and sand collecting in the river.

Previous coverage: Problems persist at the Weeki Wachee River

State officials temporarily fixed the Buccaneer Bay seawall, filling gaps with spray foam and promising a permanent resolution by June, Turbeville wrote, adding that state officials now say the final solution may be a year away.

Concerns about park overuse and the management plan also arose last year. The management plan limits the number of kayaks that launch from the state park into the Weeki Wachee, including those rented from a park vendor. Park officials were allowing hundreds more kayak launches per day than their plan allowed. After loud debate the park reinstated its daily limit of 280 kayakers per day.

Previous coverage: State reduces kayak launches on the Weeki Wachee River

The state's recent actions and delays "cause myself and other members of the public to question the sincerity and level of commitment by DEP to protect a proposed restoration project of this waterway requiring the appropriation of $6 million in tax dollars,'' Turbeville wrote.

Previous coverage: Hernando County agrees to study how much river use is too much

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has been heading up state efforts to restore the river. He told the Tampa Bay Times that he is trying to work with citizens and agencies to make that happen.

“As public servants, we count on concerned citizens to partner with us on important issues,'' he said. "The Weeki Wachee River restoration has always been a priority for me, because it is important to the quality of life for so many in our community.

State Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, expressed similar sentiments.

Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Weesam Khoury said her agency is addressing erosion and storm-water problems and awaiting the results of a carrying-capacity study that will inform the river restoration and the Weeki Wachee Springs management plan.

Fritz Musselmann is another river advocate and a retired land resources director from the water management district. His former agency isn't holding the Department of Environmental Protection to its lease agreement, he said.

The district didn't require the state to keep kayak numbers in check and has not acknowledged its responsibility to help resolve conflicts among river users downstream from the park, which Musselmann called "unconscionable'' in an email to the district earlier this month.

Water management district spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh said that her agency and the Department of Environmental Protection are working together to address concerns, including erosion issues. That collaboration includes weekly phone calls, she said, adding, "the District has worked with the Park Service staff to implement temporary measures to protect the head spring and the river until permanent solutions can be put in place.''

Musselmann said in his email that he fears state land and resource managers have put profit ahead of protection.

"Crowded natural resource-based venues greatly diminish a user's experience and inevitably destroy the very resources that attract users/tourists to a venue,'' he wrote.

Florida's commerce is all about tourism, Musselmann said, but the Weeki Wachee River is a one-of-a-kind natural system.

"Unlike Disney's Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Busch Gardens and other concrete and steel attractions, Florida's natural resources cannot tolerate nor survive similar levels of use,'' he wrote.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.