Gently lifting his rake from the water, Chuck Morton tossed another load of mud and Lyngbya algae onto a yellow kayak serving as a makeshift barge on the fringe of the spring he has come to know well through his many years as an environmental watchdog.
Surrounded by about 65 volunteers who spent Saturday morning in waist-deep water combing the sand for the stringy, green-black exotic water plant, he was elated.
"It's great to see this," said Morton, longtime president of Hernando Environmental Land Protectors. "I think this perfectly illustrates what can happen if each person does one little thing. It all adds up."
The cleanup event at Weeki Wachee Springs, organized by three Hernando County Rotary clubs — Brooksville, Spring Hill and Spring Hill Central, plus the Kings Bay Rotary Club of Citrus County — was the first in a long-term series of activities that club leaders hope, in time, will bring the springs back to health.
"Weeki Wachee Springs is among our county's most visible nature resources, and attracts visitors from all over the world," said Doug Brainard, president of the Spring Hill Central Rotary Club. "Keeping it healthy is, to me, one of the most important activities the community can be involved in."
Dr. Chris Anastasiou, senior environmental scientist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said that Lyngbya algae is one of the most noxious invasive species found in the state's waterways, in that it attaches itself to plants and the bottoms of bodies of water, forming large mats. An aggressive grower, the plant chokes out many native grass species that small fish and marine animals such as manatees depend on for food.
"It's an extremely toxic plant that unfortunately spreads very quickly," Anastasiou said. "It's one of the worst problems you can have in a spring, and can be devastating to wildlife."
Modeled after the One Rake at a Time cleanup of Kings Bay in Crystal River, the Rotary clubs' Save Weeki Wachee Springs project was conceived as a community partnership with officials at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and the water management district, which governs the spring area. The effort involves the painstaking hands-on process of removing the Lyngbya algae plants one at a time, followed by the eventual replanting of the area with native eel grass.
Brainard said that the success of Saturday's initial cleanup event signaled to him that the public is eager to participate in the project.
"We were originally hoping to get 50 volunteers, but we got many more than that," he said. "My hope is that it will continue to grow as we go along. We're far from finished."
In late August, certified scuba divers will volunteer to clear algae plants from the deepest portions of the spring.
Brainard said the Rotary clubs are also working toward establishing a permanent underwater nursery in the park to grow eel grass that can be transplanted to replenish other areas of the river.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.