WEEKI WACHEE — With the onset of fall, activities have slowed more than usual at Rogers Park.
In early October, the county closed the park for three months to complete a project to improve the quality of water in the Weeki Wachee River by controlling runoff from the parking lot. In the meantime, nearby residents continue to see what is happening at the park as critical to the future of the entire length of the river.
While the public cannot use the boat ramp at Rogers Park during the project, kayak rentals from the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park are still being picked up at the site. Those and other commercial kayak operations are getting close scrutiny from local residents who are worried about the long-term sustainability of the river.
There was also a recent controversial proposal to bring more sand into Rogers Park for the beach there, but county officials have decided to put that on hold until the state can complete its study of silt accumulation in the river.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers allocated $400,000 to begin the examination of river degradation, which could ultimately bring a $6 million restoration project to the popular waterway. Public pressure to do something has run high over the past two years, but there has been controversy over the causes and the solutions for the river's declining environmental quality.
Overcrowding, growing silt and sandbars, destruction along the riverbanks due to inexperienced kayakers and the increase of nutrients that bring algae growth are some of the top reasons given for increasing problems on the river.
Hundreds of residents who have signed petitions, the county's Port Authority and the County Commission have all supported a carrying capacity study to potentially limit commercial use of the river by kayak rental operators. But there has been controversy over proceeding with that study.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson has spearheaded the state funding on the river. But when the carrying capacity issue came to a head several months ago, he sent out a memo reminding those who might support the idea to realize that just because they live on the river doesn't mean they have special access to it if a study determines that limits are needed.
When supporters of the study didn't use Simpson's language in their petition drive, Simpson's staff told county officials that they had no petitions supporting the carrying capacity study, which was necessary for Simpson to ask for a state allocation.
Those who have pushed hard to find a scientific way of defining how much activity on the river is too much were not happy with that response.
"The primary cause of overcrowding on the river is the unsustainable number of commercial water craft launched from the State Park and from five other commercial kayak outfitters that launch and pick up from various locations downstream of the State Park,'' Fritz Musselmann wrote in a memo submitted to the state's legislative delegation last month.
"Collectively, these commercial outfitters contribute to most of the community's complaints about public safety, user conflicts, sand and bottom erosion from destruction of submerged and shoreline plants and trespass onto private property,'' Musselmann wrote. He is a former land resources director with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and was involved in state land acquisitions, including those in the Weeki Wachee area.
Shannon Turbeville, a local property owner who has pushed for government action and funding to address degradation of the river, told the legislative delegation, during its meeting in Brooksville last month, that setting a capacity limit is necessary to make any future improvements meaningful.
"I personally cannot advocate for $6 million of my tax dollars to fund a project that will go unprotected and likely be destroyed by unlimited commercial vessels in this area,'' Turbeville said.
He argued that email comments from state officials who say that river crowding is a "local problem'' are counterintuitive.
"How can it be a local problem?'' Turbeville asked, when the state park is allowed to put 70 watercraft per hour into the river and the state has jurisdiction over the waterway.
Turbeville also spoke to the County Commission last month about a plan to replace sand lost last year during Hurricane Hermine at Rogers Park and at Pine Island.
He has voiced concerns about sand flowing into the river, even during minor rain events, both with the county and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
He urged the county to get a handle on the issue immediately while the park is closed.
Deputy County Administrator Jeff Rogers said he recommended that the county accept the federally funded sand, but not place it at Rogers Park at this time.
"Obviously,'' he said, "we have a sand issue that does contribute to the river.''
Rogers also said that the county needed to do its part to keep sand from the Rogers Park beach out of the river in the future.
Residents along nearby State Road Canal were in favor of that idea. Several years ago, they agreed to pay the cost of a dredging project that cleared the access from their canal into the river.
But soon after the dredging was done, they told commissioners, the sand started to collect there again as the county dumped sand at Rogers Park to improve the beach.
"We just see you guys dumping more dirt, and it's coming right in our canal,'' Weeki Wachee Gardens resident Corby Rusk told the commission. "I don't feel like I got my money's worth at all.''
Commissioner John Allocco said that Rogers Park is an important facility to the county.
"I absolutely believe there is sand going in that river we can stop,'' he said. "We need to find ways to prevent this.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.