WEEKI WACHEE — Last month, Hernando County commissioners were treated to a stack of letters from some of their youngest constituents, urging them to do the right thing for their local treasure, the Weeki Wachee River.
Megan Jenkins was one of three dozen National Honor Society members from Weeki Wachee High School who wrote urging county leadership to get a handle on recreational activities that are damaging the river.
“By having better control on the harm that recreational use is having on this ecosystem,” she wrote, “it will allow for many more generations to come to enjoy the landmark and protect the species that reside within it.”
Representatives of county and several state agencies have been meeting for months to weigh possible solutions to the significant river degradation that has been documented over the past decade. With the results of the Weeki Wachee carrying capacity study, released in 2019, work started on a detailed plan to turn the tide on the damage.
Members learned last month about one of the key tools they may soon use to address a key problem the study identified: damage done when boaters and kayakers disembark along river banks and sandbars.
At the urging of river advocates, the Florida Legislature approved a change in state law earlier this year, allowing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to regulate mooring and anchoring to protect Florida springs.
The source of the Weeki Wachee River is a first magnitude spring.
Before any specific rules go into effect, the commission must go through a rule making process. That process includes input from experts and those who have a specific interest in the impacts of the rule, explained Jessica Crawford. legislative affairs director for the commission.
Major Rob Beaton of the FWC told the working group that he wants one of those stakeholder meetings held in Hernando County, likely later this month. By having local input, he said, the agency learns what regulations will work with the specific needs of an area.
“Every spring might have a different need,” Beaton said. “Every spring might not need a restriction on beaching, might not need a restriction on anchoring.”
His agency is working on a process for cities and counties to apply for restrictions, similar to what has been used in the past when jurisdictions wanted other kinds of boating rules enacted.
The new rules could be ready for review by year’s end and potentially go into effect by the middle of 2022.
Hernando commissioners are expected to get an update on the process at their Sept. 28 meeting, according to Hernando County administrator Jeff Rogers, who chairs the working group.
During the meeting, Randy Smith provided an update on the long-awaited river restoration project. Smith is the natural systems and restoration bureau chief of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns and manages much of the public lands that surround the river. The district is in the process of bidding the work and expects that plans to dredge and restore portions of the river will begin in the fall.
Rogers raised a cautionary flag based on that information. Once the river is restored and easier to navigate again, he said, “potentially that’s going to increase the activity on the river.”
Another facet of river protection has been an extensive public education program by the water management district which will wrap up at Labor Day, explained Michele Sager, communications coordinator for the district.
Videos and other materials teaching proper behavior while enjoying the resource have gotten more than a half million views on social media and 30,000 clicks through to the web sites describing the Weeki Wachee efforts, she said.
The water management district also now prohibits anyone from entering the adjacent Weekiwachee Preserve from the water. Those who kayak through the portion of the river controlled by the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park are also not allowed to get out of their kayaks within park boundaries.
Before the release of the carrying capacity study, many local residents blamed the boom in the number of kayakers for the river’s environmental damage. After criticism arose over the growing numbers of kayaks launched by the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park at the river’s headwaters, the park agreed to hold its vendor to the number of launches set out in the park’s management plan.
While leaving the door open for future discussions about limiting boat traffic or boat types on the waterway, the carrying capacity study took specific aim at those who pulled their boats up on the river banks or onto sand bars. Other activities that continue to cause problems are the building of rope swings and platforms. These activities are prohibited, but county and state officials routinely have to remove new structures.
Chris Becker of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the agency which oversees the state park, said that his agency has secured a new boat to allow officers to patrol for and remove more swings, ropes and platforms, and it will also allow monitoring of park visitors when they are kayaking.
The agency is also preparing permitting to allow the restoration of some of the sandbars which have been damaged. Becker noted that he thought he might ask some of the students from Weeki Wachee High School who have expressed concern about the river’s future to participate in those restoration efforts.
“That’s a good idea,” Rogers said.