Hernando County officials and Weeki Wachee River activists got word they found encouraging from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Thursday.
The commission was discussing a staff recommendation to establish a springs protection zone to prohibit mooring, anchoring and beaching watercraft on 20 sandbars in the river. The hearing in Miami is a prelude to the agency’s final decision on the issue, which is expected in July.
But after listening to Hernando County officials, the largest private property owner on the river and several of the most involved river advocates, Fish and Wildlife Commission members wondered if their staff proposal was enough.
They were also told by staff that in the last week, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, have thrown support to a Hernando County proposal to prohibit all mooring and grounding from Rogers Park to the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. The water management district owns nearly the entire southern bank of the river.
Fish and Wildlife Commission chairperson Rodney Barreto said that he was inclined to side with Hernando County government since they are most aware of what their constituents want and are willing to deal with the differing points of view.
But Commissioner Gary Nicklaus said he believed staff was recommending a more conservative approach based on where it could be proven that watercraft mooring was damaging the river. He said the commission had approved a speed zone in another area and was sued for stepping outside the bounds of its legal authority in setting the rule.
The commissioners asked their staff to bring back more information about damage beyond the sandbars before the July meeting.
Hernando residents who spoke with to the commission Thursday offered what they said was proof that watercraft mooring was injuring other parts of the river, not just the 20 sandbars.
They brought photos of the riverbanks just across from the sandbars jammed two weeks ago with kayaks and boaters. Those areas would continue to be open to anchoring and the damage it has been shown to cause under the commission’s staff recommendation.
Roy Johnson, president of the Weeki Wachee Rescue Team, called the staff recommendation “inadequate and ineffective” in that it would actually force more people into smaller spaces. Instead of the entire river, it would only keep people from 13 percent of the shoreline.
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Photos shared with the agency by Mary Ann Johnson also showed the shoreline packed with kayaks and people tied up so they could swim in Hospital Hole, a popular spring in the river that would go unprotected.
Hernando County Administrator Jeff Rogers said that the county and its elected leaders did not support the commission’s staff proposal. “We don’t think it’s going to work at all,” he said.
Rogers said the county has worked with the conservation commission as well as other agencies that control activity along the river to help build the springs protection law now on the books for Florida specifically to help the Weeki Wachee River. He also said that the same state officials used the evidence gathered through a carrying capacity study and professional experiences about the damage to the river to guide that work.
“I’m here to tell you that the river has been been destroyed,” said George Foster, who owns the largest stretch of private land on the shore of the Weeki Wachee. He said the eel grass is gone in the river due to public misuse. He has lost 20 feet of waterfront because of erosion by users of the river. If the state closes just sand bars along the river, “you’re just going to move the party upstream or downstream,” he said.
Eugene Kelly of the Florida Native Plant Society said he has kayaked the Weeki Wachee River dozens of times. He said that the proof that river-long protection zone is needed is clear to anyone who has started their trip inside the boundaries of the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
That park prohibits those in kayaks from getting out of their craft or getting onto the shore inside the park so there are no sandbars or shores scraped clean of plant life. Lush vegetation thrives undamaged on the banks and in the river itself.
Once outside that boundary, Kelly said, “all of that changes. It’s like night and day.”