WEEKI WACHEE — Advocates who have fought for six years to reverse the decline of the Weeki Wachee River were dealt a blow earlier this month when officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to delay a decision to enact new protection rules on the river that their own staff helped to craft.
The agency is, however, poised to give the first designation of a springs protection zone to another location that has not received the same level of public scrutiny.
That site is a little-known spring on the Withlacoochee River called Nichols Spring, but it does have one special distinction. It is completely surrounded by approximately 200 acres of land owned by the children of Charles Dean, the former state senator who first suggested the law.
His daughter, Leslie Shannon Dean Wright, is retired from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where she served as a regional director, and the spring is literally in her backyard. His son, Charles Dean Jr., is the director and president of Dean Environmental Services Inc., which owns the other surrounding properties that his sister does not, according to Sumter County property records.
All this doesn’t sit well with Shannon Turbeville, who has led the charge to save the Weeki Wachee River.
Along with others, he helped push the public use problems on the river to the forefront, starting with a packed town hall meeting in 2016. Since then, his efforts have helped to curb overuse of the river by the kayak vendor operating at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, helped push for state funding to restore the river, and supported a formal carrying capacity study that showed how public use had degraded the waterway.
To push forward protection efforts, Hernando County established a working group of agencies to find solutions. That group, which included Fish and Wildlife Commission representatives, settled on new rules to protect springs. They were approved by the Florida Legislature last year.
On Wednesday, the commission meets in Panama City and it was expected to take up the springs protections for Weeki Wachee. But when the agenda came out, it noted that there would simply be an update on the process for the river, but there would be a final approval likely on Nichols Spring.
It led Turbeville to wonder: Just where is Nichols Spring and how bad is the situation there? And why, he wondered, would it take precedence over the clearly proven problems of public use at Weeki Wachee, which sees thousands of visiting boaters each year? That was when he discovered the connection with the Dean family, Wright’s connection with the regulating agency and the relative obscurity of the spring their land surrounds.
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In 2016, when then-Sen. Dean was pitching a springs protection bill at a Senate committee meeting, he said without naming a location that he knew of a “specific instance” of a spring surrounded entirely by private landowners who had ongoing issues with boaters on the spring.
“This is an environmental issue,” he told the committee, adding that the state needs the additional protection authority because these boaters need to know, ‘You’re disrupting the environment. You’re killing the spring.’”
The bill amendment that was supported by the Weeki Wachee River advocates took previous springs protections to the next level by prohibiting anchoring, mooring, beaching and grounding of watercraft.
Canoes, kayaks and boats stopped on the river are damaging the water bottoms and destroying the important vegetation that grows there. So are the people who get out of their craft, trample seagrass, jump off tree platforms and rope swings and erode shorelines. Those were some of the findings of the carrying capacity study.
As soon as Turbeville found out that Weeki Wachee wasn’t going to get its approval for the protection zone this month, he wrote to the inspector general for the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Mike Troelstrup.
“It’s unclear to me what statutory check box, if any, Hernando County has not checked for the FWC. As a matter of fact, the FWC and Hernando County previously worked together on proposed amendments to (state law), for the specific purpose of establishing a springs protection zone within the Weeki Wachee River,” Turbeville wrote.
“Would you not agree that at the very least, the perception of this is horrible? Please consider looking into this, and ensure that everything is above board with the relevant decision makers in the state taxpayer funded FWC,” he wrote.
As part of the process of providing evidence of the need for a protection zone at Weeki Wachee, the Southwest Florida Water Management District wrote a letter to the commission that cites the findings of both the carrying capacity study and the district’s Surface Water Improvement and Management Program. Both document the river damage done by public use.
The letter also notes that the problems have prompted a sedimentation study and an extensive public education program. It also offers to share its water quality and vegetation information about the area.
In a parallel letter to the commission about Nichols Spring, the water management district wrote, “the district has very little data pertaining to this spring.”
While water flow measurements show it to be a second-magnitude spring, “the District has not conducted any studies regarding carrying capacity or vessel traffic at Nichols Spring. The District has also not collected any vegetation or water quality data for Nichols Spring, and has no biological data for that location,” wrote Michael Bray, assistant general counsel.
Troelstrup of the Fish and Wildlife Commission didn’t see any problem with the Nichols Spring connection to the Dean family, he said in a response to Turbeville.
“I understand your concern regarding perception of the landowner at Nichols Spring receiving favoritism. Based on my review, it does not appear supported,” he wrote, suggesting that if Turbeville still had an issue that he could take it up with the agency’s general counsel who handles ethics questions.
Troelstrup said that Nichols Springs and Weeki Wachee are “vastly different” and said for the first springs protection zone, the state thought Nichols Spring would be appropriate.
The commission’s inspector general wrote that the two public meetings on Weeki Wachee “were attended by many stakeholders with different opinions on how the springs protection zones should be applied to Weeki Wachee.”
“On the other hand, at the Nichols Spring public meeting, only two stakeholders attended,” he wrote. “It was decided that because of the small size of the spring and no differing opinions, this would be an appropriate first step while the complexities of Weeki Wachee are being sorted.”
The argument for Nichols Spring protections made in the agenda backup for the commission meeting is that, “In the last 10 years, the anchoring, beaching, grounding and mooring of vessels has caused significant harm to the planted grasses and cypress habitat along the spring’s shoreline.”
In her application for the protection zone, Wright showed the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission photos of boaters on her property at Nichols Spring.
She also provided information on how the site was restored under a state permit for shoreline stabilization and new vegetation planting a couple of years ago. But continued use by boaters who anchor there has damaged the shoreline and the trees. In one case, she said someone cut down cypress trees to feed their campfire.
In her plea to ask for protection at Nichols Spring, Wright pointed out some of the same concerns often voiced by the Weeki Wachee advocates.
“There is a very delicate landscape of what is here,” she wrote, “and the question is will it survive or not?”