For nearly two hours last week, state Sen. Wilton Simpson listened to a crowd of people worried about the condition of the Weeki Wachee River.
Some told stories about the river filling in with sand and becoming nearly impossible to navigate in some areas. Others complained about the thousands of kayakers paddling past their riverfront homes in any given week. Some voiced concerns that the growing river use will someday steal the beauty that first drew residents and tourists to the area.
Still others wanted to see the speeding boats slowed down, more education for kayakers and a solution to the vanishing wildlife.
There were also clear lines drawn, some between property owners and boat operators and rental boats and tourists in kayaks.
When they were done, Simpson thanked the crowd for sharing their worries and for offering some potential solutions. He vowed to charge a task force with creating a long-term restoration plan.
Simpson also promised that he would work to be sure that state money earmarked for springs would help with the effort and that he would seek larger allocations to get the improvement of the river on track.
Even if it is a long-term plan that takes a decade or more, Simpson said, it is a plan worth undertaking.
After the meeting, Simpson called Secretary Jon Steverson of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and told him about what he had heard at the town hall meeting. At Simpson's request, a team of high-level DEP employees has been assigned to study the issues on the Weeki Wachee, according to Simpson's communications director, Rachel Perrin Rogers.
Simpson also said he was grateful that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has agreed to increase the number of officers on the river. And he said the DEP is committed to providing the information needed for him to make a request for a legislative allocation in the 2017 session.
It was the kind of commitment homeowner Dave Collins begged for at the start of the standing-room-only meeting at the Coast Guard Auxiliary building.
"The big issue we have right now is the siltation of the river,'' said Collins, a five-year resident on the riverfront.
"The sandbar has been gradually extending downstream,'' he said. And while the problem has been studied several times, "there has been a lot of talk and very little action, frankly.''
Collins said some people can only get out of their canals at high tide and that, while the river is about 50 feet wide at his house, there are times when the channel is just 8 feet across. With 1,000 kayaks and 100 powerboats passing by in that narrow channel on busy afternoons, "it gets very messy. It's a dangerous situation.''
When James Bradley moved into his waterfront home more than 30 years ago, he had depths of 14 feet on the river. Now, at high tide, he has just 4 feet.
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He expressed concern about the kayakers, noting he counted 87 behind his house recently.
"They have no respect at all for a boater,'' Bradley said.
And when he noted what a tight squeeze it was to get a boat through the river, he said, he risked killing "85 kayakers in five minutes.''
Someone in the audience piped up: "No problem.''
Susan Nordstrom, who lives in the River Run condominiums, said she has watched the river turn from jade green to pea green over the last 12 years and worries that the Weeki Wachee will someday look like other spring-fed rivers across the state that have gone cloudy due to pollutants and diminishing spring flows.
"We don't want that to happen here,'' Nordstrom said.
Shannon Turbeville, the main organizer of the town hall meeting, expressed concern about the growing sandbars and noted that weirs along the river designed to prevent the problems were removed despite public protest in 2004.
"A decade later, we are faced with growing sandbars,'' he said.
The changes have created numerous safety concerns, ranging from complicating emergency responses to creating stagnant waters where disease-carrying mosquitoes can breed, Turbeville said.
During the state's 2014-15 fiscal year, there were 75,254 kayaks and canoes launched into the Weeki Wachee River from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, according to Fritz Musselmann, a former executive at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"That's a lot of kayaks and canoes,'' he said.
From his own observations of how the kayakers traverse the river, Musselmann said, "I would characterize it as a dysfunctional parade.''
He urged a comprehensive look at the myriad problems affecting the river, from storm water runoff at the state park parking lot to the need to establish a carrying capacity, which would ultimately limit the number of craft allowed in the river at a given time.
Musselmann said it is great that tourism in Florida is on the rise, but it has to be tempered with ways to protect resources.
"If you don't protect the Weeki Wachee and all of the other rivers in our state, the five first-magnitude springs within the Southwest Florida Water Management District, people who are coming to Florida to see those things won't do it anymore and those numbers will deteriorate very quickly.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.