Delayed for nearly a year, the long-anticipated cleanup of the Weeki Wachee River began again last month, and this week water district managers decided to show off how to do house cleaning in a spring-fed river.
Imagine a giant, underwater vacuum cleaner, a diver in a wetsuit sucking muck off the river bottom using a flexible hose and river dredging is an easy concept.
While the process will take a year to complete, it is a system that has been much easier on the river than the original “mechanical dredge,” which used machinery to suck silt and sediment out of the river. That process from the first day stirred up the mud, clouding the waterway to the point that water managers had to shut down the previous operation.
Since a new company took over last month, there has been no water clouding, officials said. And during a presentation to the media on Wednesday, Janie Hagberg, who heads up the project for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said the work is expected to be done on time by this time next year.
The $2.1 million dredge by Sea and Shoreline LLC is designed to restore the river to a state that will again allow vegetation growth in the riverbed and on the shore. That vegetation will provide habitat for the many animals that call the river home, from wading birds to river otters. The work will also increase the depth so that one of the most popular river dwellers, endangered Florida manatees, also will have clearer passage, Hagberg said.
The river dredging is an effort to restore the water quality and habitat in a river damaged in recent years primarily by recreational usage. A carrying capacity study done by the water management district and Hernando County showed that sediment had been building up as water usage grew over the last decade.
Visitors pulling their kayaks up on riverbanks and sandbars, jumping from rope swings and tree stands and trampling vegetation along the waterway had helped to make the river wider and more shallow, according to time-lapse photos included in the study.
While the dredge is the active river repair system, there is another plan in process that river advocates say is equally important. That plan would change the allowable recreational activities on the river to prevent recurring damage.
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On July 19, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will consider establishing a springs protection zone from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to Rogers Park. At a meeting earlier this year, the commission had gathered comments about a more limited zone, one confined to just 20 sandbars along the river.
But Hernando County officials, waterfront residents and river advocates argued the entire stretch of river needed to be protected. They showed pictures demonstrating how damaging public activities were spread all along the length of the river and not just at sandbars.
The springs protection zone would prohibit mooring, beaching and grounding vessels along the river, basically encouraging the kayakers, who are the primary boaters along the Weeki Wachee, to stay in their craft and enjoy nature while traveling through it.
Shannon Turbeville, who has been pushing for river protection since 2016, said that it is critical that the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission take the right stand on the springs protection zone for the sake of both the river and the millions of dollars spent on the dredge.
“Unless we turn people away at the state line, I think the fate of this taxpayer investment is dependent on the implementation of effective management actions and enforcement,” he said. “A scientific study proves that a lot of what the dredging company is removing is a direct result of certain recreational activities found to be killing the bottom vegetation and destroying the shorelines.”
“While Hernando County appears to be stepping up to save their top tourism destination, the jury is still out on the FWC, who is the responsible state management agency,” Turbeville said.
Susanna Martinez Tarokh said it was important that users of the river be aware that the dredging area is an active work zone and they should observe caution. There have been some cases documented on social media of kayakers using the dredge pipes that stretch the entire length of the project as mooring points. Law enforcement has been warning people to stay away from the equipment.
She encouraged people to help protect the river by observing tips that can be found on the water management district’s website, including staying inside vessels and off shorelines.
Times Photo Director Chris Urso contributed to this report.