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State officials aren’t doing enough to protect Weeki Wachee River, advocates say

River advocate files complaint criticizing how state park officials drew up their new management plan and what they left out.
Bradley Wiersma, of New Port Richey, explores a fallen tree at the bottom of the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. Swimming is not permitted in the river within the state park boundaries.
Bradley Wiersma, of New Port Richey, explores a fallen tree at the bottom of the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. Swimming is not permitted in the river within the state park boundaries. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 9

WEEKI WACHEE — Any day now, a dredging company is expected to begin a multimillion-dollar restoration of the Weeki Wachee River after intensifying public use in recent years has eroded the river banks, denuded sand bars and made the river more shallow and wide.

Last month, the river’s most vocal advocate filed a formal complaint with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection arguing that the agency, which operates the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park at the headwaters of the river, is not doing enough to protect the waterway and the dredging investment approved by state lawmakers.

Shannon Turbeville’s complaint states that he does not believe the agency followed its legal requirements to get input from a citizens advisory committee before it updated the state park’s management plan. But his primary concern is that the plan doesn’t have adequate enforcement measures to back up rules designed to keep the river healthy.

Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Weeki Wachee.
Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Weeki Wachee. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Social media is full of examples of how people continue to ignore the rules that kayakers stay in their boat, stay off sandbars and shorelines and stay out of the water. These activities harm the river. Soon, enforceable prohibitions will likely be in place on the portions of the river outside the state park.

But despite long-standing rules that prohibit people from getting out of their boats inside the state park boundaries, river watchers say it happens all the time with little or no action by state officials.

A sign encourages paddlers and boaters to stay in their vessels on the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
A sign encourages paddlers and boaters to stay in their vessels on the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The 927-acre Weeki Wachee Springs State Park leases its land mostly from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Within those state park boundaries, signs tell people who rent kayaks from the park vendor to stay in their craft. Exiting their craft or swimming in the water is strictly prohibited.

Outside the park boundaries, much of the river is owned and managed by the water management district as the Weekiwachee Preserve.

In 2019 a carrying capacity study showed that people exiting their boats, trampling on shorelines and sandbars, swinging from rope swings and jumping into the river was causing erosion, tree loss, vegetation destruction, water quality degradation and other damage to the health of the river.

From left: Barbie Beltran, of Spring Hill, Anna Sayers, of Jackson, Michigan, Drew Berry, of Jackson, Michigan, Michael Santos, of Spring Hill, John Roger, of Tampa, Manuel Santos, of Spring Hill, and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, park on a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
From left: Barbie Beltran, of Spring Hill, Anna Sayers, of Jackson, Michigan, Drew Berry, of Jackson, Michigan, Michael Santos, of Spring Hill, John Roger, of Tampa, Manuel Santos, of Spring Hill, and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, park on a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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The district enacted a new rule to prohibit people from exiting their craft onto land in the preserve. But enforcing that rule was a problem until recently, when Hernando County petitioned the state to make that portion of the river run a “springs protection zone” under a new law.

If that request is granted later this summer, the new zone will empower local and state law enforcement to cite those who ignore the rules, which focus on a tourism experience where visitors stay in their craft and enjoy passively floating through the natural setting without damaging it.

Two years ago, the state park began updating its management plan, convening a public advisory committee for an introductory meeting in October 2019. Turbeville was on that committee but said that despite promises that there would be another meeting to give input to craft the new management plan once the carrying capacity study was done, that didn’t happen.

Dee Ann Miller, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said there was a second input session open to anyone in the public who wanted to comment on the completed draft of the plan in December. She also said the management plan itself is approved by a committee representing multiple agencies at another public meeting last month.

Turbeville also raised the question of adequate enforcement after he learned from a public records request that there were no citations within state park boundaries during the summer of 2020 despite ongoing rule violations.

Golden retriever “Ray” chases a frisbee from a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River while on a canoe trip with Henny Molero and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
Golden retriever “Ray” chases a frisbee from a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River while on a canoe trip with Henny Molero and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The water management district has also questioned adequate enforcement.

Ellen Morrison, land resources bureau chief, wrote in a draft letter that her agency “feels that the plan does not adequately address enforcement of existing rules such as the rule pertaining to visitors exiting vessels within the park boundary ... The District’s position is that enforcement of both existing and proposed rules is essential to limiting and preventing impacts to the river from visitor use and would require that this element be included and better detailed in the plan.”

Aerial drone view of kayakers as they float along the river river near Weeki Wachee State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Weeki Wachee.
Aerial drone view of kayakers as they float along the river river near Weeki Wachee State Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Weeki Wachee. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The district ended up not pushing the issue, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, public information officer.

“When (Morrison) discussed the district’s concern regarding enforcement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, they committed to addressing those concerns outside of the plan. The district will continue to monitor that commitment to ensure that it is being met,” she said.

Miller said the state agency in charge of enforcement is the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and while the state park management plan “may include language for the park to coordinate with FWC and local agencies regarding law enforcement, it does not direct the actions of FWC or other law enforcement agencies.”

She added that the agency “has no plans to amend the approved plan at this time.”

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