HERNANDO BEACH — Change could be coming to Weeki Wachee — to the river, the state park, the city and the roadside attraction that bear its name and have drawn people to this natural wonder and iconic mermaid show since 1947.
The most pressing issue at hand, many believe, is preserving and restoring the Weeki Wachee River after years of recreational overuse. The state and local agencies charged with protecting the natural resource want the community to know what public use is doing to the river and what might be necessary to stop it.
The draft of a year-long carrying-capacity study of the Weeki Wachee River, commissioned by those agencies, was released in December. On Feb. 5, the Southwest Florida Water Management District will host a public workshop about the study at 5:30 p.m. at the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary on Calienta Street in Hernando Beach.
Preliminary results of the study showed that human activity on the river is degrading the water system and the lands that surround it.
Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions of Tampa examined the river from July 2018 to June 2019. The consultants used observations, water quality samples, public surveys, cameras and other scientific methods.
Erosion on the riverbanks and sandbars was clear over time, they found, and 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.
The study does not recommend setting a numerical limit on how many people the river should carry. But it indicates that people who get out of their boats and climb up on the riverbanks are responsible for degrading the shoreline.
Future plans could include more public education, a committee of stakeholders working toward solutions and reestablishing vegetation along the river. The study also suggests extending river rules that exist inside the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park boundaries farther down the river.
The headwaters of the 12-mile waterway are inside the park, with the lower portion passing by private homes and a county park before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Restricting the kinds of watercraft allowed in parts of the river and establishing other limits are all mentioned in the study.
Wednesday’s meeting will include a presentation by the project consultant. A question and answer session will follow, with additional time for one-on-one discussions.
But Weeki Wachee has been in the spotlight in recent months for reasons beyond the river study. Changes are afoot at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and state legislators may dissolve the incorporated city of Weeki Wachee.
All of that activity has spurred a barrage of concerns and a flow of incorrect information on social media. The Tampa Bay Times approached key players on these matters for answers to the community’s many questions.
Minding the health of the Weeki Wachee River
What was the goal of the Weeki Wachee River carrying-capacity study?
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"The goal of the study was to evaluate the effects of recreational use on the natural systems of the river, as its growing popularity and increased visitor traffic have led to concerns about potential degradation of the river and its ecosystems,'' according to Randy Smith, the study’s project manager and the natural systems and restoration bureau chief for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The $250,000 study was funded by the district and Hernando County.
How many recreational users should be allowed on the Weeki Wachee River?
While the number of boaters has been a concern in recent years, the study did not set a numerical limit of recreational users.
“In fact, the results show that managing the kinds of activities on the river is just as important, if not more important, as capping the number of people on the river,” Smith said. "The primary reason a single carrying capacity based on vessels/users could not be recommended is because the number of vessels/users alone did not cause the ecological and water quality impacts. The study showed that activities in the water and on the banks of the river are causing significant cumulative impacts to the system.''
What’s the next step now that the study is complete?
"One suggestion from the study is to create a working group made up of governing agencies with different areas of expertise and authority,'' Smith said. "The working group would evaluate the recommendations from the study, including future actions, management options and funding needs, and work with the public to find the right balance between recreational use and river protection.''
The water management district would be a partner in that, he said, and could provide technical expertise and funding for river restoration.
Who has authority over the Weeki Wachee River?
"Along with the District, Hernando County, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission all play a role in protecting the river,'' Smith said.
What can citizens do to help protect the river?
“Stay in your vessel when possible,” Smith said, "and if you leave the vessel, tie off in shallow waters, avoid docking on river banks, don’t trample vegetation or kick up silt, don’t climb on banks or climb trees to jump in the river or swing on rope swings, and don’t throw out litter or leave anything behind.''
Changes at Weeki Wachee State Park
What is changing at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and why?
The Weeki Wachee River’s headwaters — the Weeki Wachee Spring in the state park — also is where the iconic underwater mermaid show takes place. And a park vendor rents kayaks at the top of the river.
"The goal of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources,'' said Weesam Khoury, deputy press secretary for the agency.
The park is removing unauthorized rope swings hung over the river by recreational users, she said, "to protect visitor safety and minimize impacts to the river.''
The park also is updating directional and safety signs to make them compliant and consistent with Florida State Park standards and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Khoury said. And the entrance sign is being updated.
Are the mermaids and water slides going away?
No, according to Khoury.
“The mermaids are a cultural resource of this community and will continue to be featured at Weeki Wachee (Springs) State Park," she said. "Additionally, we have no plans to remove the water slides.'’
What is the status of the new early takeout area for kayaks under development west of the main park?
In 2018, work began on a new takeout area that would give park kayakers an option to get off the river about halfway down the current 5-mile trek to Hernando County’s Rogers Park.
“The early takeout spot is estimated to be completed by the end of February," Khoury said. "In regards to future kayak regulations, these are still pending.'' The project was an amendment to the park’s 2011 Unit Management Plan.
The next management plan update is in the drafting stage.
"We will continue to keep the public informed through the open and transparent UMP process, which includes opportunities for public input,'' Khoury said.
Efforts to dissolve the city of Weeki Wachee
What is happening with the move to abolish the city of Weeki Wachee?
State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, has introduced and advocated for a bill before this session of the Legislature to dissolve the tiny city, which incorporated decades ago, mainly as a marketing scheme for the attraction. Ingoglia cited the city’s large debt and possible violations of state law.
His bill cleared the local administration subcommittee last week and faces additional committee review.
"This city of only 9 people is effectively bankrupt, while collecting taxes, with almost ZERO benefit to the community,'' Ingoglia posted on his Facebook page after last week’s vote. "In addition, they may have been taxing without proper authority to do so by not having followed a 2004 law regarding their elections.''
Video of the committee discussion is at https://thefloridachannel.org/videos/1-22-20-house-local-administration-subcommittee/.
Will people with a Weeki Wachee mailing address see any change if lawmakers dissolve the city?
No. Postal addresses can have place-names or community names, such as Spring Hill or Hernando Beach, which are not cities.
"There will not be any addressing changes for the customers of Weeki Wachee. Mail delivery and addressing will continue as normal,'' said Tracie Finley, strategic communications specialist for the U.S. Postal Service
Why has river advocate Shannon Turbeville been pushing to dissolve the city of Weeki Wachee?
"The city benefits few, while funded through ad-velorem taxation from those who have no voice as voters,'' Turbeville said. "To continue kicking the can could add to the liabilities that would likely be placed on the shoulders of the county taxpayers.''
What would Turbeville like to see come out of the carrying-capacity study?
"Our state agencies to protect the natural state and condition of the public land they are responsible for,'' Turbeville said. "I hope this is accomplished with the participation of Hernando County, which is clearly a stakeholder.''
His ultimate goal?
"For future generations to have an opportunity to enjoy what we have taken for granted,'' he said.