BROOKSVILLE — Mary Ann Johnson spent most of her allotted three minutes at the microphone on Tuesday flipping from one photograph to the next.
Appearing before the Hernando County Commission to urge them to do “the right thing” for the Weeki Wachee River’s future, Johnson’s pictures demonstrated just why she believes decisive action is needed — now.
Most pictures showed crowds outside their kayaks standing on sandbars and river banks and frolicking in the water. One showed picnic table and barbecue platforms planted into the river bottom. Another showed a large new boat frequenting the river, emblazoned with depictions of marijuana leaves and offering free edibles and brownies for sale.
Still another showed someone at the very top of a tall tree leaning over the river; a broken neck waiting to happen, Hernando Commissioner Steve Champion commented.
“Plain and simple, anything goes,” said Johnson, who works with Weeki Wachee Crime Watch and the Weeki Wachee River Rescue Team. “My opinion is, when is it enough?”
This week, the Hernando County Commission said it is enough now.
Commissioners voted to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to designate the Weeki Wachee River as a springs protection zone, a new classification created by the Legislature earlier this year to provide special authority to protect Florida’s precious springs and spring runs.
The source of the Weeki Wachee River is a First Magnitude Spring. The protection zone allows the state to close a spring and spring run to mooring, anchoring or beaching watercraft on sand bars or shore lines. Boats and kayaks would be allowed, but those on the boats and kayaks would not be able to disembark on the river.
That option was the one recommended by Hernando County administrator Jeff Rogers.
“You end up with a Weeki Wachee River which, I believe, is the best river in Florida for nature tourism and kayaking,” he told the commission. “I don’t believe tourism is damaged at all. ... It’s a beautiful river.”
For five years, Weeki Wachee residents have fought degradation there, arguing that the sheer numbers of boaters using the delicate spring system were destroying it. In 2017, Hernando County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District funded a carrying capacity study to determine how much was too much river usage.
The study found that it wasn’t the number of kayaks using the river that was damaging it, but rather the activities of the kayakers. By stopping along the banks of the river or on sand bars, they were destroying vegetation, causing erosion and contributing to water quality decline.
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For the past year, Rogers has led a working group comprised of the agencies responsible for the river, ranging from the Hernando County Sheriffs Office to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the Weeki Wachee Springs State park at the headwaters, to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns much of the land along the river’s banks.
During those group meetings, the agencies kicked around various ideas. The state park already prohibited kayakers who launch from their property from exiting their craft anywhere within their jurisdiction. Then, earlier this year, the water management district approved a new rule that prohibits anyone from exiting their craft on water management district land along the river.
The group also discussed how there was no rule in place that could keep kayakers off the shore or sandbars. So they discussed the idea of adding that authority to the law, which grew into the springs protection zone legislation approved by Florida lawmakers earlier this year.
Hernando commissioners listened to waterfront property owners, environmental advocates and owners of local businesses who rent kayaks on the river. Some suggested less drastic measures, like better enforcement of existing rules, more education and better signage. Others argued that banning anchoring kayaks would destroy tourism.
But Rogers disagreed. He said the value of the Weeki Wachee River is that it is small, narrow, unique and is in the ideal location as a destination for ecotourism.
“I don’t believe it should be used as a recreational area for people to swim and hang out,” he said.
Since the state law to create springs protection zones is so new, officials are still drawing up the rules for how they will work but Rogers said it is expected those rules will be done by early next year. Part of the law requires that a jurisdiction that asks for such a zone must have substantial evidence proving the need. Rogers cited the Weeki Wachee carrying capacity study as the county’s proof.
Commissioners agreed to draw up an ordinance creating a directory of kayak rental locations and other companies conducting business on the river. Such a directory could hold businesses responsible for educating their clients on how to follow the rules on the river and could create a funding mechanism for river protection in the future.
The commission also agreed that there was a need to encourage added enforcement and better signage, since so many of those using the river are tourists who may not know the rules in place to protect the river.