Thursday, June 21, 2018
News Roundup

Columnist and Brooksville old-timer vainly try to find ugliness on Weeki Wachee River

Three miles into our 5.5-mile trip on the Weeki Wachee River, Bill Eppley took note of yet another long-gone sight from his boyhood.

"When did we last see eelgrass?" he asked rhetorically. "It was right at the beginning of the river. … It used to be everywhere — long, flowing.''

The beds of rippling grass that once covered the river bottom have been covered by sand and mats of lyngbya algae.

That's the slimy growth that in recent years has formed the backdrop of the mermaid shows at the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction and changed the prevailing color of spring basins throughout the state from a gem-like blue to a grayish green.

And along with the damage to the river caused by declining water flow, the algae is what brought Eppley and me out to the river last week.

For months, we'd been talking about paddling the river so Eppley, who's 67, could show me how much it had changed since he was a kid, when his family rented a house in Bayport every summer and he had the use of a motorboat that he ran "wide open" up the length of the wide, clear, swiftly flowing river.

The time seemed right because in November the Hernando County Commission missed a prime opportunity to halt the river's decline.

It could have passed an ordinance that placed meaningful controls on the fertilizer that is the source of most of the nitrogen in the river — the nitrogen that feeds the strands of algae.

Instead, relying on the friendly advice of a University of Florida researcher who is very friendly with the turfgrass industry, it passed a law that does virtually nothing.

Sure enough, we saw plenty of algae, especially at the river's source, the Weeki Wachee Spring, and in the first mile of our journey.

Also, the bottom used to be craggy with exposed limestone, Eppley said.

"There was some sand," he said. "Now, it's all sand."

Some of it, no doubt, came from the creation of the artificial beach at the Buccaneer Bay water park at Weeki Wachee Springs in the 1980s. And several years ago, the state found that sediment had run off from the edge of nearby highways, U.S. 19 and Cortez Boulevard. Sod was planted to stem this flow, said John Athanason, the attraction's spokesman.

In some cases, Eppley said, the sand filled in some of the deep swimming holes he remembered. He also remembered that the stream flow in these holes was often so swift that he and his friends risked being swept downstream.

Another symptom of the declining flow: the stands of cypress trees that Eppley pointed out along the river banks. They were once rooted in shallow water, he said, and are now high and dry and crowded by hardwoods that advanced as the water retreated.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the river's annual average flow between 1940 and 1969 was 185 cubic feet per second. Over the next 30 years, the average dropped to 165 cubic feet per second, and more recently it has dipped even further, to 158 — a decline that the Southwest Florida Water Management District attributes to both pumping and generally below-normal rainfall.

Meanwhile, the concentration of nitrates, historically near zero, has climbed to more than 0.9 parts per million, or nearly three times the level the state has set as a target for groundwater.

But I have to say, if we were trying to make a point about the ugliness of the river, we picked a lousy day.

Strong summer rainfall has temporarily restored the flow to near the average of the flush years Eppley remembers.

"It's got a pretty good boil," Eppley acknowledged as he looked at the water surging to the surface of the spring basin.

The sky was as blue as the river of Eppley's memory, and the water, he had to admit, was also mostly blue — except in the spots where it flowed over all that sand he hated to see and the color was more like turquoise or maybe emerald green.

And whether I was seeing the effects of Hernando's three Rotary clubs, which have worked together to clean up the spring, or the attraction's routine maintenance, the basin definitely was less clogged with algae than I remembered from my last few visits.

We saw plenty of mullet and manatees. We passed over a school of several hundred mangrove snappers that lingered around the river's deepest point, Hospital Hole.

Ugly? No. In fact, I'm not sure I ever remember this river, or any river, looking much better.

Which is not to say the commission didn't need to act. Just that they're lucky, because it's not too late.

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