WEEKI WACHEE — Hernando County needs the Weeki Wachee River.
The river’s headsprings host, in non-pandemic years, the most popular tourist attraction the county provides, the legendary Weeki Wachee mermaids. The county values that image so much that they are asking state lawmakers to give them ownership of the attraction’s old slogan — “The city of live mermaids” — for marketing purposes in the coming years.
The city itself was dissolved by the Legislature last year for a variety of reasons, including concerns that the financial needs of the city’s dozen residents might have become more important than the need to keep the river healthy.
With the scientific proof of what has caused the river’s decline in hand in the form of the Weeki Wachee Carrying Capacity study, the member agencies of the Weeki Wachee working group have picked their initial priorities designed to change damaging public behavior.
The state and the county are now working together to limit the river’s future use, including potentially prohibiting visitors from anchoring or exiting their watercraft along most of the river’s shoreline. The county has also re-ignited the controversial idea of urging development of new public attractions, which could include swimming and boating, inside the Weekiwachee Preserve to offset the loss of recreation opportunities on the river.
The carrying capacity study concluded that kayakers exiting their vessels to climb onto the banks or hang out on the sandbars are the activities damaging the river, not simply the growing number of kayaks on the river which have been the target of much of the public debate.
Kayakers pulling up on sandbars and shorelines to rest, picnic and play on rope swings have significantly damaged vegetation that lines the waterway and protects the banks from erosion. That erosion has been dramatic, based on aerial photos taken along the river over the last decade. Water quality has suffered. Trees have been weakened and have fallen.
The experience of floating down a pristine waterway is largely gone now.
Last month, the working group, comprised of Hernando County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the Weekiwachee Preserve, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Hernando County Sheriffs Office, met to talk about who has jurisdiction to govern various aspects of river use.
The state park already prohibits those that kayak in their boundaries from getting out of their craft.
On Dec. 15, the water management district’s governing board approved rule changes which will prohibit anyone from leaving their watercraft to climb out on water management district property. That is much of what kayakers pass as they travel between the state park and the county’s Rogers Park.
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There are currently no plans to establish a pull-out location on the river into the preserve.
The new rule also bans swings, rope swings, diving from platforms and stairs in the trees on district lands, another ongoing issue on the Weeki Wachee River.
While the rule changes will be reviewed by the Legislature before they go into effect, there is no obligation for lawmakers to issue a formal approval. According to district spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh, the district’s land use rules have not been significantly changed since 2004.
Citizens supported the changes, with about 20 emails sent on the topic.
“The study concludes that out-of-vessel activities are literally destroying the district’s shorelines and contributing to sedimentation transport in the river,” wrote Shannon Turbeville, who has led the charge to protect the river. “Why aren’t you addressing the issue during this update.”
The new rule for the Weekiwachee Preserve land isn’t the only change agencies are seeking. In their annual wish list for state lawmakers, Hernando County commissioners in December voted to include state regulation of where watercraft can be anchored and moored. That would expand on the protection by keeping boats and kayaks moving along the river rather than stopping and causing damage to the natural system.
During the discussion, Hernando County Commissioner Wayne Dukes asked who was going to stop boaters from anchoring if the law is changed, echoing long-standing complaints that no one is doing enough enforcement now on existing rules. County administrator Jeff Rogers, who heads up the Weeki Wachee working group, said enforcement was going to be the next discussion when the group meets again in February.
The district is also working on an education plan which will be likely come out in the spring and the county has already met with river advocates and local kayak rental businesses and others that rely on the river to talk about an educational program and how new rules might impact them. Rogers said that one of their suggestions has been that if access to recreation on the river is curtailed, could the county expand its other recreational options.
Swimming areas have long been a topic of public interest. Hernando County offers no public swimming pools, although there are swimming areas at several waterfront parks.
County and district officials met on Dec. 20 to have that conversation, suggesting a series of ideas including a potential new entrance to trails in the preserve at the county’s Hernando Beach water tower site. That concept plan also recommends developing a new parking area with rest rooms, a paddle craft launching site and new water recreation opportunities at the site of the old mining lakes at the southwest portion of the Weekiwachee Preserve.
The public would access those new amenities from the existing preserve entrance on Osowaw Boulevard, to keep vehicle traffic away from the protected corridor used by the bears that live in the area.
The mining lakes have long been used for swimming, although that is not an allowed use there now. The County Commission has pushed to create a public swimming area there three times over the last two decades but each effort has sparked vigorous opposition from the adjacent residential Hernando Beach community and was eventually rejected.