BROOKSVILLE — When Hernando County commissioners agreed to help pay for a carrying capacity study on the Weeki Wachee River three years ago, they hoped to get answers on how to save the county’s most attractive and inviting natural resource.
The study didn’t set a number for how much use of the Weeki Wachee was too much. But it did determine the primary problem — damage caused by people. With hundreds of users each day, most of them kayaking on the river run, about 80 percent decide to stop along the way, getting out onto the river’s banks and sand bars.
That activity has caused destruction of vegetation, loss of the soil that supports it and erosion of the river’s edge. Aerial photos taken over the last dozen years document that damage has been dramatic and swift.
This week, commissioners heard from those who conducted the year-long study, as well as riverfront land owners, users of the waterway and those who have been outspoken advocates to protect the Weeki Wachee.
By the end of the two-hour session, commissioners directed their staff to take one of the first steps recommended in the study: form a multi-agency working group to begin to address the problems. They wanted to see the destruction along the banks and sandbars curtailed, more education for river users and stricter enforcement of existing rules.
Protecting the 7½-mile-long river is complicated, because no one agency has total authority over what happens there. While the county can control some land-based activities, much of the river frontage is the responsibility of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which helped to fund the study.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection controls the headwaters and the first portion of the river that flows from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. And while the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office polices the river, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has the most sweeping jurisdiction over waterway use in the state.
The need for immediate action takes on added urgency since a $4.1 million allocation to restore the Weeki Wachee was a rare survivor among this year’s legislative funding initiatives. That restoration has been pushed through by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who has long supported solving the causes of damage to the river.
A town hall meeting Simpson sponsored in mid-2016 began the formal public conversation about the problem. Attended by locals who felt overrun by the hundreds of kayaks rented daily by the state park, complained about sand shoaling on the river making it impossible to navigate, blasted boaters who were jeopardizing the safety of all, decried the loss of wildlife and argued that visitors were trespassing on private, river-front property.
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Hernando commissioners heard Tuesday that the problems continue, even though the state park scaled back its kayak rental business to meet the requirements of the park’s management plan after considerable public pressure.
One river advocate who has kept pressure on the public entities charged with protecting the river is Shannon Turbeville. He made a strong case to commissioners on Tuesday to not let the legislative money go to waste and to put rules in place on the Weeki Wachee allowed under existing Florida law.
Noting that other places in the state prohibit vessels from anchoring, Turbeville told commissioners that the Weeki Wachee is “literally being loved to death.”
Existing rules would allow agencies to regulate speed and operation of vessels on the Weeki Wachee without affecting private property or restricting river access, vessel size or type, commercial launches or swimming in the river, he said.
Turbeville also took a swipe at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, saying “they are the management agency clearly not managing the Weeki Wachee River.”
Long-time resident Joe Gagliano described the situation on the river as “complete anarchy.”
One of the locals who collects trash along the river, Gagliano said he sees wildlife harassment, rampant alcohol and drug use and a variety of violations of safety rules on the water.
“Word on the river is that Hernando County is easy,” he said. “This is our redwood forest. If we don’t love it, we will surely lose it.”
Social media posts and speakers this week have detailed ongoing problems with trash dumped in the river, speeding boats and jet skis, people partying on the sand bars and not social distancing and continued use of rope swings and trees used for jumping into the river.
Hernando Commissioner John Allocco said that the state will take notice when all of the parties come together to address the issues. He echoed the concern that the state allocation was a critical piece in saving the Weeki Wachee. “This resource is not going to come back if we waste this restoration money that’s coming to us,” he said.
Others agreed having law enforcement officers present on the river is helpful. As Commissioner Steve Champion noted, he doesn’t worry about going the speed limit until he sees a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
There were a variety of suggestions on how to curtail damage to river banks and sand bars, including establishing a couple of mooring spots along the river. Some more creative suggestions included planting species like sawgrass, which is not inviting to waders, and posting signs that discourage exiting boats such as “Moccasin Breeding Site” signs.
Whatever the solution, Allocco said it is important that the Weeki Wachee can be enjoyed into the future.
“I think access to the river is important,” he said. “I think we all want that.”