A frustrated Hernando County Commission blasted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week for watering down a plan to protect the Weeki Wachee River from overuse.
Board chairperson John Allocco, who has been a primary advocate for protections the county has sought for more than a half dozen years, said he didn’t understand why the agency has gutted the plan.
“How do you even enforce this, unless the goal is they don’t have to enforce anything,” he said.
The county has been grappling for years with how to prevent visitors from climbing on the river banks, trampling vegetation and stirring up silt when they go in the water.. It has advocated for new rules that would prohibit people from mooring or getting out of their boats.
Allocco was reacting Tuesday to a state proposal presented to the county in late March at a public input meeting. It would only prevent boat mooring on 20 sandbars and not the entire river as the county had requested after a study showed in detail the damage done by public use.
“There’s no way that this can be successful. It doesn’t do what the proposal was for,” Allocco said. “If I approved this, I would be just as responsible for the degradation of the river. It’s not doing anything.”
Hernando County officials, who worked with community members, funded a scientific study, convened a working group of state agency representatives and pushed for a new state law that they thought was the best solution to protect the river. The law allowing springs protection zones was approved two years ago.
With the river experiencing heavy use in recent years, the county helped pay for a carrying capacity study. It showed the river was growing more shallow, wider and harder to navigate. Shorelines were eroding, water quality was in decline, and trees shading the river bank were falling.
The solution the county took to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under the new law was to establish a 2.3-mile zone between Rogers Park and the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park where boaters would be prohibited from mooring, anchoring or grounding their craft and stepping out into the waterway or on river banks.
Just designating some sand bars as off limits makes no sense, said Hernando County Commissioner Beth Narverud. Even if boaters heeded signs, which would be posted on sand bars, all they would have to do is anchor their craft a few feet away and walk over to the sandy areas, she said.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Those sandy spots have been the attraction, said Hernando County Administrator Jeff Rogers. They are where visitors get out of their kayaks and boats, plant barbecue grills, let their dogs loose and trample on the shoreline. They often use wooded area as both bathrooms and trash dumps.
“This is an important asset to your community and I think we need to protect that,” said Commissioner Jerry Campbell, urging the county to stick to its original proposal.
Most of the local residents who spoke also urged the county to stick to its original proposal. Hernando Beach resident Charles Greenwell said the last thing the county needs to agree to is a plan which would bring dozens of unsightly signs to each sandy point in the river.
“We cannot piecemeal it,” said Mary Ann Johnson, a longtime river advocate. “Otherwise it’s not going to work. We’re not going to protect anything.”
Shannon Turbeville, who has spearheaded the river protection effort since the beginning, also asked the county to stand by the original plan. Regulating public activity on the sandbars doesn’t address the real issue, he said. The sandbars form downstream from where the damaging activities are going on.
Rogers told commissioners he will attend the next Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee meeting in Miami on May 10. He said no decision is expected at that meeting but a vote may come in September.