WEEKI WACHEE — Increased recreational use of the Weeki Wachee River has hurt the water quality and the health of the waterway, especially along the river banks and sandbars where increasing public activity has stripped vegetation and the soil that would support it.
Those are among the findings of a draft carrying-capacity study of the river released last week by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The district and Hernando County funded the study in hopes of determining how much use of the river is too much.
Local officials are hoping for a $6 million allocation by the state Legislature next year to restore the river by dredging silt and making other environmental improvements. Residents have raised the alarm for years that overloading the Weeki Wachee with boats and people was speeding up the decline of the river, which is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water and has as its source an Outstanding Florida Spring.
The long-awaited results of the study were welcomed by Shannon Turbeville, one of the leading river advocates who has worked to raise awareness of the crowding issues and the need for changes to protect the river.
"The data from the study would seem to confirm that our natural resources will eventually succumb to the effects of overuse,'' Turbeville said. “With the same amount of resources serving an ever-growing Florida population, the way we enjoy our resources must change so that future generations may experience what has been available to us.”
Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions of Tampa conducted the study, which examined the river from July 2018 to June 2019. The consultant used observations, water quality samples, public surveys, cameras and other scientific methods to examine the impact of human activity on the river and the state of the river and adjacent lands.
"The Weeki Wachee River is a popular recreation destination. Its growing popularity and increased visitor traffic have led to concerns about potential degradation of the river and its ecosystems,'' according to the study. "Preliminary site investigation suggested that exposed sandy beaches on river bends (point bars) have resulted, in part, from vegetation and soil losses due to recreational use.''
Erosion builds on itself as trees and plants are lost along the riverbanks over time, the study found. Aerial photos taken over the years show that the river has grown wider at points. The study also showed that as watercraft and public activity numbers increase, so does the turbidity, or lack of clarity of the water, which is one of the river’s most important features.
"Results from the social surveys found that the majority of visitors claimed to enjoy the river and recommended it as a place to view wildlife and crystal-clear water, and about 80 percent of them docked and recreated on point bars,'' according to the study. "However, many visitors found the river to be over-crowded, and several long-time visitors noticed changes in submerged aquatic vegetation and an increase in the number of visitors over the years.''
The 71-page draft study, which describes the amount and types of uses on the waterway, does not specify limits on river use.
"It is evident from the result of this study that managing the kinds of activities that can occur on the river and limiting where certain activities can occur may be at least, if not more, important as capping the total number of daily users,'' the report concludes.
Adding recreational guidance signs and educational outreach about the ecological impacts of recreational activities were among the short-term recommendations. Another was replanting and reinforcing sandbars and shorelines, and limiting public access to allow plants to be reestablished.
Removing rope swings, allowing visitors to tie boats in shallow water away from damaged sand bars, and reinforcing river banks and trees were among the other suggestions.
The next phase of management options could include changes to operations, regulations and enforcement of recreational guidelines.
One idea could be to enforce the same rules downstream that exist in the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, the river’s headwaters. One of those rules — the ban on disposable bottles, cans and other products — "appears to have been effective at the state park,'' the study noted.
Another suggestion is to follow the lead of other protected areas throughout the state, which do not allow landing points along the river except by private property owners. A variation of that might limit docking to areas improved to handle that activity.
Limiting some types of boats may help, the study found. They may be regulated based on size or whether they are powered by a motor. And limiting the overall number of boats is possible.
"After recreational activities such as docking and exiting vessels have been addressed,'' the study states, "then additional restrictions on the number of vessels can be further regulated.''
The study also suggests creating a multi-agency working group to review the study results and management options.
Stakeholders are meeting next week to discuss the draft with hopes for a final report next month, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, spokeswoman for the water management district. A public meeting about the study is expected in February.
"We fully expect for the public to be engaged, and there will continue to be a process throughout this effort to solicit feedback from the public,'' she said. "The focus will be to balance recreational needs and to protect the natural systems and functions of the river.
"As mentioned in the report, it is not just the number of users on the river. It is the cumulative effect of the activities of the users. The district believes both need to be considered together.''