HERNANDO BEACH — Last week’s crowded meeting about the Weeki Wachee River carrying-capacity study was reminiscent of the town hall meeting in 2016 that jump-started efforts to save the ailing waterway.
At the earlier session, state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, committed to help restore the river. It might take years, he warned, but the work was worth doing.
Last week’s session drew another standing-room-only crowd to the Coast Guard Auxiliary building. Once again, it included waterfront homeowners, river-dependent business interests, agency officials and people who enjoy the recreation the river offers.
What was new was the science — a detailed, data-laden report proving that recreational overuse is degrading the river. People beaching their kayaks and trampling the shoreline are killing vegetation and mucking up the water, it found. The report also offered a roadmap for reversing that damage while still allowing many of the recreational uses.
A batch of local and state agencies shares responsibility for the river. The next likely step will be a discussion before the Hernando County Commission next month.
County administrator Jeff Rogers told the crowd he will recommend the county participate in a working group comprised of officials from all the agencies. They will determine how to tackle the problem and who will do what, based on their legal responsibilities.
Wood Environmental and Infrastructure Solutions, the consultant who completed the carrying-capacity study, was commissioned by the county and the Southwest Florida Water Management District for $250,000. The study suggested better educating people about how to properly enjoy the river and beginning to restore damage done to the banks and the denuded sand bars.
Limiting areas where people can get out of their boats, expanding stricter rules in force inside the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and limiting the kinds of vessels in portions of the river were more aggressive measures that could come in the future.
The study did not suggest immediately limiting the number of vessels on the river, but left open that option after trying other measures.
Much of last week’s meeting was spent describing how the study was conducted and what facts it turned up.
From water sampling to visitor surveys, cameras recording activities to vessel counts, trampling exercises to analyzing historical images of the river’s condition, the science showed how growing public use has created significant damage.
A 2008 aerial photo of the river showed what consultants determined was a healthy system. A 2017 photo of the same location showed an eroded and damaged river run.
Charts showed as many as 700 vessels on an average daily count just a couple of years ago. That number is now below 200, after the state park kayak vendor was forced to comply with the park management plan and limit the number of rented kayaks.
Ninety percent of the vessels on the river are kayaks, the study said. And 80 percent of boaters get out and walk on riverbanks and sandbars on their way down the river. As a result, vegetation critical to the health of a spring-fed river is disappearing.
When those plants are gone, the soil and sand where they grew also washes away, the study showed. And the water quality necessary for aquatic plants suffers.
Local residents and river visitors attending the two-hour meeting shared their own observations.
Riverfront homeowner Shirley Hartman said the sand collecting along her shoreline has created a beach where kayak renters stop regularly. Others spoke about how the river has grown wider and too shallow to easily navigate in some places.
Some suggested measures they had seen used in other parks and waterways. They included closing areas in particular seasons to allow vegetation to grow back, restricting motor boat access or adding kayak tour guides to educate visitors.
Shannon Turbeville, the lead voice pushing for river restoration, said he appreciated the idea of an agency working group. But he was concerned because County commissioners have said numerous times that they cannot control what happens on the river.
Directing his concern to the water management district, he asked, "Is it not the state’s responsibility statutorily to protect that state land?''
Randy Smith, natural systems and restoration bureau chief for the water management district, said that job falls to multiple agencies.
"It really takes the collaboration of all of the agencies, because even if you have a restriction, you need the law enforcement side of it,'’ Smith said.
Some in the crowd had concerns about the river not related to the carrying-capacity study. Several asked whether the state park is properly protecting the head springs of the Weeki Wachee River. Parks Small, assistant director for the Florida Park Service, explained that park management plans are undergoing an update.
The plans need public input, he said, and he was happy to see the turnout at the meeting.
"I see so much passion for the river here,'' he said.
Joe Buchi said that he and the others who have waterfront property or rights to water access in their Weeki Wachee communities shouldn’t lose what is theirs.
"I am concerned about retaining the ability to have fun and play on the river,'' he said, recounting how inexperienced kayak renters from the state park are always running into him on the water when he is in his kayak.
Buchi said it would be sad to see locals lose their access and enjoyment because the park operation has damaged the river.
"I think it is a precious and fine and happy thing when a child jumps in the river and swims and sees a fish,'' he said. "I think it’s something we should preserve.''