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Weeki Wachee River worthy of protection, former state official says

Kayakers enjoy a morning paddle down the Weeki Wachee Springs River at Weeki Wachee State Park. [Michele Miller]

By Fritz Musselmann

After more than 20 years of state and local governments ignoring recommendations to protect the long-term integrity and beauty of the Weeki Wachee River, a study finally has been conducted by a third-party consultant, funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Hernando County, to evaluate how recreational use affects natural systems along the river.

The study links some recreational activities with environmental impacts on the river, such as prop scarring, uprooting of vegetation, improper docking, wading, trampling of vegetation and damage from rope swings. The study also includes common sense policy and management options for agencies to consider implementing to reduce recreational impacts.

Over the past four years, there has been enormous public outcry over the number of kayaks launched from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park that has exacerbated many of the impacts described above, to say nothing of the overcrowding and limiting of access by the community to Rogers Park. To be fair, five private kayak rental businesses use the river and potentially contribute to the impacts on the river.

As background, the community-supported 2011 unit management plan limits the number of “users” launched from the State Park to 280 per day. However, in April 2017, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection finally fessed up that “in the past, there has been no limit on the number of kayaks and canoes launched through Weeki Wachee Springs State Park — sometimes more than 900 per day.”

In a show of arrogance, the State Park’s response was slow and painful for the community, starting with a “pilot project” reducing the number of launches to 560 per day, then 400 per day, and finally in October 2018 (after pressure from state Sen. Wilton Simpson) back to 280 “users” per day.

It obviously was all about revenue and not protecting our natural resources or providing a quality recreational experience.

Past missteps are not completely the fault of the Florida Park Service. The Water Management District, which leases the property to the State Park, failed to enforce the terms and conditions of its lease, including the requirement in the Park’s 2011 plan limiting the number of users launched from the park.

One of the most important short-term goals for implementing the study’s findings will be for the County, County Sheriff, state Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to stop pointing fingers at each other and agree on their respective responsibilities to protect the river and enforce common sense management options to reduce recreational-user impacts.

Here’s some irony, let us not forget that the Department of Environmental Protection designated Weeki Wachee an “Outstanding Florida Water.” According to Florida statutes, the designation makes it “worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes” and restricts activities that lower water quality or otherwise degrade the water body.

Lastly, and equally important, while I understand the desire to promote tourism to increase revenues at the local and state level, there appears to be little effort to explain the sensitivity of the unique natural resources, in this case the Weeki Wachee River, that draw visitors to our state.

There’s a public workshop to provide the results of the study on Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Hernando Beach.

Musselmann is the former Land Resources Director, Southwest Florida Water Management District