WEEKI WACHEE — As a project to deepen and widen the Weeki Wachee River channel appears to be getting closer, Hernando County commissioners approved a license agreement last month to give the dredging contractor access to various county sites.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District is working with state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, to secure an estimated $6 million in state funding for the river restoration, officials said. If funding is approved this session, work should begin in the spring of 2021, project manager Janie Hagberg told commissioners.
The work must be done when it does not impact protected manatees, which use the river in the winter months. That means the project could impact activities at Rogers Park next summer. The contractor will use the park to store materials for the dredge and to launch the barge that will transport the dredged sediment down the river.
"Unfortunately, it’s going to have some impacts,'' said Commissioner John Allocco. He said he hoped that might encourage the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to push for a fast opening of the new early kayak takeout area within the park boundary. Currently, kayakers launch at the state park and end their journey at Rogers Park.
The contractor will transport sediment from the dredge to a site the county owns near Rogers Park on Cofer Road. There, it will be drained, stockpiled and staged for eventual removal, according to Hagberg.
The county’s license will allow dredging equipment in the nearby, county-owned residential canals. The water management district cannot dredge those canals, but the contractor needs access so it can dredge where the canals meet the river channel, she explained.
The dredging area stretches for 1.6 miles of the river. Workers will dredge to a depth of 5 feet below the mean low-water line. The channel width will be 20 feet.
In some places, the river already is deeper than 5 feet, Hagberg said, so those areas won’t be dredged. The contractor will not remove rocks, she said, just silt and sand.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes expressed concern that once the river is cleared of sand and running more swiftly, silt from the private canals might wash into the river again. He suggested the county talk to the contractor about establishing a taxing unit for canal-front homeowners so they can help pay for the dredging of their canals at the same time.
The county did that several years ago, and some residents are still paying for the past dredge, even though sediment has returned to their canals. Some criticized the county a few years ago for adding sand at the Rogers Park beach, which may have washed back into their canals, clogging them again.
Those who boat in the Weeki Wachee River have been clear in public meetings that built-up sand and silt has been a navigational hazard. Hagberg last week focused on the sediment build-up as an environmental problem. The sediment changes the channel, smothers aquatic plants, and reduces wildlife habitat and the passage of animals, such as manatees.
The water management district has been working with the county to address environmental concerns along the shoreline, and the time has come for the dredge, she said.
Hagberg assured commissioners that her agency would hire a contractor with experience in environmental restoration dredging. If the allocation is approved during this legislative session, as is hoped, funding should be available by fall so the district can seek bids and start work a few months later.