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Dredge to help Weeki Wachee River in limbo

Water quality and other problems shut down the project and it is unknown when it will restart.
 
From left: Barbie Beltran, of Spring Hill, Anna Sayers, of Jackson, Michigan, Drew Berry, of Jackson, Michigan, Michael Santos, of Spring Hill, John Roger, of Tampa, Manuel Santos, of Spring Hill, an Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, park on a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
From left: Barbie Beltran, of Spring Hill, Anna Sayers, of Jackson, Michigan, Drew Berry, of Jackson, Michigan, Michael Santos, of Spring Hill, John Roger, of Tampa, Manuel Santos, of Spring Hill, an Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, park on a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 14, 2022|Updated Sept. 14, 2022

WEEKI WACHEE — For the last half-dozen years, advocates of the Weeki Wachee River have urged state officials to address the build up of sand hampering navigation and the damage to riverbanks from heavy recreational use. Now a key part of the repair plan is in limbo.

Environmental regulators say the company hired to dredge the river, Gator Dredging of Clearwater, has violated state and federal permits and has breached its contract by failing to meet water quality standards.

Designed to undo years of sand shoals forming along the waterway, the dredge was supposed to make the river deeper and easier to navigate, providing water flow that would return it to a condition closer to what it was in the past.

The project was considered a win by the community, which sought state funding for the job after human activity was shown to be damaging the river. Kayakers and boaters trampling on banks and sandbars, jumping from trees and using rope swings have destroyed vegetation, causing erosion and and harming trees.

A carrying capacity study showed that the river has grown wider and more shallow just over the past decade. The build up of sand, which also has been traced to beach renourishment by Hernando County and at Buccaneer Bay’s manmade beach and water park, had altered the river’s channel, smothered beneficial aquatic vegetation and reduced wildlife habitat and passage.

In 2020, the Florida Legislature approved $2.195 million for the project, with the Southwest Florida Water Management District contributing another $2 million. Through competitive bidding, Gator was awarded a $2.13 million contract to complete the work. The original timeline had the work starting in March and ending in October.

Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park May 4.
Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park May 4. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Dredging began on June 14, but just two hours after the work started, it stopped. Records provided to the Tampa Bay Times do not specify why. Work resumed three days later but stopped again and did not resume until July 5. The dredge continued intermittently until July 22. At that point the water management district pulled the plug, telling the contractor that work could not continue until it was in compliance with its permits.

The permit issued for the work from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation set turbidity standards, which is a measurement of water cloudiness, in this case caused by stirred-up silt. Part of the Weeki Wachee’s attraction to visitors is its spring-fed clarity and as the work was going on, periodic social media reports were showing stretches of cloudy water downstream from the dredging equipment.

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A picture of one of those plumes is included in the flurry of emails sent back and forth between Gator Dredging from the district in the weeks that followed.

The dredging operators on the Weeki Wachee River were shut down in July after contractor Gator Dredging struggled with meeting water quality requirements of their permits. This photo was taken by the Southwest Florida Water Management District when work caused a plume of silt in the river.
The dredging operators on the Weeki Wachee River were shut down in July after contractor Gator Dredging struggled with meeting water quality requirements of their permits. This photo was taken by the Southwest Florida Water Management District when work caused a plume of silt in the river. [ Southwest Florida Water Management District ]

On August 4, William J. Coughlin III, president of Gator Dredging, wrote to the district saying the district’s dredging plan was flawed.

“We discovered 40-50 major design/bid plan conflicts due to errors and (omissions) of the design engineer,” he wrote. “We identified that contractor cannot proceed with any dredging until receiving a set of revised (and proper) dredging plans due to the extensive amount of conflicts and unreasonableness of the dredge design and tolerances.”

On the same day, Coughlin also made a request for an extension of the company’s dredging contract and additional funding. Those were denied in an August 9 response from the district, as were allegations that the district was dodging phone calls, canceling meetings and failing to respond to contractor emails.

“At the outset, let me state that the Southwest Florida Water Management District has not caused any delays or damages to Gator Dredging,” wrote Janie Hagberg, chief engineer and supervisor of the Surface Water Improvement & Management Bureau. “Instead, any delays or damages incurred by Gator Dredging have been self-inflicted by Gator Dredging’s failure to comply with the project plans, specifications and (state) permit.”

A sign informs the public about the ongoing Weeki Wachee River Channel Restoration Project near the entrance of Roger’s Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
A sign informs the public about the ongoing Weeki Wachee River Channel Restoration Project near the entrance of Roger’s Park on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The email exchanges continued back and forth until on September 7. That’s when the water management district informed the dredging company that for a number of reasons it had put Gator’s bonding company on notice that it would be responsible for the project if Gator does not comply with permit requirements. The letter states that the state and federal permits have been violated.

The water management district has repeatedly asked for a plan from Gator to fix its operational problems, wrote the agency’s general counsel Christopher A. Tumminia. The only plan that has been provided “appears to be a thinly veiled attempt by Gator Dredging to rewrite the plans, specs and permits for the project, so that Gator Dredging’s violations will no longer be violations; and that Gator Dredging’s exceedances will become compliances.

“This is not acceptable,” Tumminia wrote to the contractor.

He went on to detail the changes proposed by Gator and pointed out that the company has not kept within the template of its dredging plan nor dug as deep as is required by the contract. The company also has not been the “team” player it states that it has been in trying to resolve the problems.

“Gator Dredging has not “teamed with” the district, but has fought the district throughout this important environmental restoration project, with threats and attempted intimidation, including threats of delay, disruption and extra work claims, all of which are unjustified. This is hardly what the district would expect from a “team” member,” Tumminia wrote.

Officials from Gator Dredging did not respond to several phone messages and emails last week and this week seeking comment on the status of the project.

Golden retriever “Ray” chases a frisbee from a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River while on a canoe trip with Henny Molero and Johnny DeMico of Tampa on May 4.
Golden retriever “Ray” chases a frisbee from a sandbank on the Weeki Wachee River while on a canoe trip with Henny Molero and Johnny DeMico of Tampa on May 4. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Shannon Turbeville, who has been one of the leading advocates for protecting the river, said he was glad to hear that the agencies were taking their environmental protection responsibilities seriously.

“I’m happy to know that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District are taking a front-seat approach with our taxpayer funded restoration. With any luck, the (Florida) Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will have a similar approach when it comes time to protecting it,” he said.

Turbeville has also advocated for the creation of a Springs Protection Zone on the river, a designation that would prevent people from beaching, mooring, anchoring and grounding their craft on banks and sandbars.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will discuss the Weeki Wachee protection zone during a meeting later this month is Miami.