There’s no need to travel far down the Weeki Wachee River’s crystal-clear waters to understand why it is such a special place.
In 2003, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection designated the river an Outstanding Florida Water. This designation is given to water bodies that are worthy of special protection because of their natural attributes and allows no degradation to water quality.
For generations, the river has been a place to cool off during hot summer months. However, as Florida’s population has increased, so has the number of people who recreate on the river.
Unfortunately, this unique treasure is so popular that it is in real danger of being loved to death. As river usage has increased, the cumulative impact from various types of recreational activities has resulted in habitat loss, increased turbidity and decreased water clarity.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, with funding assistance from Hernando County, has just completed an ecologically-based carrying-capacity study to evaluate the effects of recreational use on the water quality and natural systems of the river. The study, conducted by Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, provides valuable information to assist resource managers to reduce, prevent and, where possible, reverse ecological impacts on the river from recreational usage.
One of the most compelling conclusions of the study was that some of the most severe alterations to the river are from people leaving their vessels and trampling vegetation. This is extremely important because it strongly suggests that the number of people recreating on the river is only half the story. Equally important — or perhaps more important than the number of boats, kayaks, and paddle boards — is the way in which people recreate.
While the water management district does not have the authority to regulate recreation on the river, it is committed to providing the best scientific data and research, along with funding projects, to help facilitate dialogue among the state and local government agencies with the authority.
The study recommends creating a multi-agency working group to implement policy and management decisions to help protect the river from further degradation. This working group would be composed of the water management district and agencies with the authority to implement changes that strike the right balance of education, regulation and restoration to ensure this unique treasure is protected for future generations.
It is up to each of us to help reduce the impact of recreation on the Weeki Wachee River. We owe it to ourselves, future generations and the many species of animals that call the river home to recreate responsibly and minimize our impacts to ensure this Outstanding Florida Water remains outstanding.
Jennette Seachrist is the resource management division director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Seachrist oversees initiatives including water supply, flood protection, natural systems and water quality. She is a licensed professional engineer in Florida and joined the district in 2004.