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  1. Hernando

State reduces kayak launches into Weeki Wachee River. Local conservation advocates cheer.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Special to the Times Boats and kayaks share the narrow river near Rogers Park on the Weeki Wachee River last year. Shannon Turbeville and others have been working to find solutions for sediment build up in the river, made worse by the county continually adding sand to the park after storms, and crowds of kayaks on the water.
Published Oct. 31, 2018

WEEKI WACHEE — After months of arguing over how many kayaks the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park vendor should launch each day into the river, a state park official last week said the agency will reduce public use to the level established in the park's 2011 management plan.

"Per our direction to the concessionaire, effective Friday, October 26, 2018, the park's paddling operation will launch no more than 280 users (individuals) per day from the Park, regardless of paddle craft type,'' wrote David A. Clark, deputy director of the land and recreation division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The email was to state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who has played a key role in restoration efforts on the Weeki Wachee River, including an ongoing carrying-capacity study to determine appropriate usage.

In 2014, state officials reported more than 75,000 launches onto the river and at popular times, as many as 900 watercraft per day.

Clark went on to explain, "In addition, our team will continue to work with our concessionaire to ensure proper controls are in place for accurate reporting."

The announcement was a win for Simpson and river advocates, including Shannon Turbeville, who has exchanged heated emails with state officials for months questioning why they allowed higher usage of the river than the management plan allowed without going through the required research and public discussion.

Turbeville set a deadline of late last week for state officials to resolve his questions about launch numbers before mobilizing citizen groups that have been vocal about river protection.

Another active river supporter, retired land resources director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District Fritz Musselmann, recently sent a blistering email to state and local elected officials.

In his decades of work for the agency, Musselmann advocated for conserving more than 450,000 acres of land and water resources, including the state acquisition of the Weeki Wachee attraction, springs and a portion of the river. He also recommended that state park officials should manage it, thinking they would do right by the river.

"Regretfully,'' Musselmann wrote, "I have come to believe that it was and is the worst recommendation I made in my 33-year career at SWFWMD.''

From his interactions with the agency, he concluded "what appears to be the deliberate and/or calculated deception by DEP and State Park Staffs.''

Concern over the state park's intentions came after Turbeville requested state records that included troubling correspondence.

The original management plan set a limit of 280 users per day, but records show that at some point the park started counting kayaks instead, nearly doubling the number of users. Park officials had said they were working to limit the number of launches by adopting a 70-launch-per-day pilot program last year.

But records showed that kayak launch revenue soared this year. The state park brought in $744,283 in gross sales in April, May and June, compared to $631,238 during the same months last year.

One email showed that several years ago, park workers also were concerned about the negative impact of too many kayaks on the river.

Another document showed comments by the park vendor indicating a willingness to curb river activity, but only if it did not affect the company's financial bottom line.

Turbeville grew concerned that if the state park wasn't limiting launches now, would it honor what could be lower limits indicated by the carrying-capacity study. State officials have told waterfront homeowners the study might limit their use of the waterfront, for which they pay a premium in property taxes.

Turbeville questioned whether the park's concessionaire, Guest Services, also would have to comply.

Musselmann shared those concerns.

"From the community's point of view, it is as if DEP and the Park Service have some sort of priority or exclusive use," he wrote. "The fact that they are causing impacts and user conflicts doesn't seem to phase them as long as they can keep their numbers high.''

A public workshop on the carrying-capacity study, which began this summer, is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. on November 8 at the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Hernando Beach. The Water Management District and Hernando County are funding the $250,000 study, which is considered a key step toward the river restoration backed by Sen. Simpson.

Simpson has promised to push for $6 million in state funding to resolve water quality and silt problems that plague the waterway, issues made worse by the public usage. Last week, after state park officials announced the reduction in launches, Simpson repeated his support for the restoration project.

"I think that the conversation that they had with a lot of our local concerned citizens helped, and I wanted to be sure my voice was heard, as well, and it was,'' Simpson said. "I think they were very enthusiastic to get to this conclusion.''

"I'm ecstatic, I really am,'' Turbeville said, praising Simpson's efforts. "He was able to accomplish in two and a half years what people have talked about for more than a decade.''

The decision to reduce launches bodes well for a positive outcome from the carrying-capacity study, he said. "Now that the DEP is following the law and the unit management plan, we can move forward with the study in a transparent way.''

Clark, who announced the change, vowed to work in cooperation in the future.

"Senator Simpson, thank you for your leadership in protecting Florida's incredible natural resources,'' Clark wrote. "The State Parks team and I commit to you that we will continue to work with you, the community, the county, the water management district, our citizen support organization, our concessionaire and all stakeholders both internal and external for the perpetuation of this important natural resource.''

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Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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