WEEKI WACHEE — On Tuesday, one after another, speakers urged Hernando County commissioners to be the trailblazers and ask the state to establish a special protection zone on the Weeki Wachee River.
A new law allowing that designation went into effect earlier this month was built by the work of local river advocates. Hernando would be one of the first places in Florida where such protections are possible
It is also a textbook example of why state leaders agreed that the law was needed.
Some of the speakers told commissioners stories about how they personally watched the river decline, especially over the last several years. Others expressed gratitude that the river might now begin to heal.
“We’ve worked hard for a very, very long time,” said Mary Ann Johnson. “This river deserves respect and you’re going to give it to her right now.”
And commissioners did, voting unanimously to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to establish a Springs Protection Zone on the river. If approved, that zone will prohibit anchoring, mooring, beaching and grounding of watercraft, in essence ending the unbridled recreation and party atmosphere that has transformed the river in recent years.
River waters from the spring head to the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park have for years forbidden boaters from disembarking from their craft or climbing on the shoreline. The new rules would stretch from that boundary west to the county’s Rogers Park at Shoal Line Boulevard.
The zone will not apply to property owners along the Weeki Wachee River for the purpose of docking their personal vessels on water adjacent to their property.
“Historically, the Weeki Wachee Springs and River’s exceptionally clear water and natural vegetation and wildlife have made the river a destination for local residents within Hernando County and visitors from around the world,” according to the letter to be sent to the state wildlife agency by Commission chairperson Steve Champion.
“Historically, recreational activities such as, but not limited to, swimming, jumping off of trees, and socializing in the river have been enjoyed by local residents and tourists alike. However, the growing popularity of the river and heightened visitor traffic has led to degradation of the Weeki Wachee River and its surrounding ecosystem.”
Over the last seven years, problems with river crowding and the degradation of the waterway have been a focus of dozens of public meetings, government hearings, social media conversations and policy and budget decisions by Florida lawmakers.
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Hernando County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns and manages the banks along most of the river, partnered to fund a carrying capacity study which showed that, while complaints about the number of kayakers clogging the waterway were rampant, the real damage was coming from what they were doing there.
Trampling on sandbars was destroying vegetation. Pulling kayaks up to the shore, climbing on the land to jump from trees and play on rope swings was causing erosion. The river was getting wider with less vegetation, trees were falling and the water was losing its trademark clarity and quality.
Shannon Turbeville, a former river resident who has spearheaded much of the behind-the-scenes coordination to keep the Weeki Wachee on the radar of government officials, had a sobering message to commissioners.
While the science proves that enacting the new rules will protect the river and the $4.1 million in dredge and restoration work that is about to begin there, “I want to be clear, I don’t take lightly advocating for a change that will likely deny my unborn grand kids an experience on this natural resource the way we all have up until this point,” Turbeville said.
“But the evidence and the science is screaming at us that, if nothing is done, this natural resource won’t be around to be enjoyed in any type of capacity.”
If the state approves the zone, law enforcement officers from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and local law enforcement will have the tool they need to cite people who violate the rules. Signs, education programs and enforcement will be the mechanism to begin to turn around behavior.
Environmental agencies are also looking at ways to bring portions of the river back, including by replanting the denuded sandbars and river banks and the dredging the river bottom. made possible by support from state Sen. President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
Hernando County also took an active role in the process.
“The Weeki Wachee River is the premier kayaking and paddle boarding river in the state of Florida. The cool sparkling water coming from this first magnitude spring is a natural gem that should be protected for all of Hernando citizens and visitors to enjoy,” Hernando County administrator Jeff Rogers said in a news release after the vote.
“I am proud of the tough decision that the Board of County Commissioners made to preserve the long-term natural beauty of the Weeki Wachee River for all future generations to follow.”