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The Weeki Wachee River needs a stronger protection plan | Editorial
Strike a better balance between conservation and public enjoyment
A rope swing, docked kayaks and people wading along the Weeki Wachee River bank are factors that have contributed to erosion and damage to vegetation.
A rope swing, docked kayaks and people wading along the Weeki Wachee River bank are factors that have contributed to erosion and damage to vegetation. [ Southwest Florida Water Management District and Hernando County ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 5

Visitors love the Weeki Wachee River. But they’re loving it to death. That’s why it’s encouraging the Hernando County Commission asked the state to designate the Weeki Wachee River as a springs protection zone. The move would dial back the anything-goes atmosphere along the river and help protect the Weeki Wachee for future generations. As with managing all of Florida’s natural resources, there is a balance between conservation and public use, and it’s beyond time to refocus on the river’s health.

Hernando commissioners voted to seek the designation last week after activist Mary Ann Johnson presented the board with photographic proof of why the action was needed. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, the pictures showed crowds outside their kayaks standing on sandbars and river banks and frolicking in the water. Under current rules, paddlers must not get out of their boats along certain parts of the river. One photo featured a picnic table and barbecue platforms planted into the river bottom.

The images should not have surprised anyone, however. For years, residents along the river have publicly voiced their concerns about the waterway’s future, repeatedly imploring state and local officials to curb abuses by visitors who ply its waters. Hundreds of people converge on the river in a typical day, most of them kayakers who stop along their paddle and tromp around the river’s banks and sand bars. Aerial photos taken over the past decade have documented the damage. And a study funded by Hernando County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District found in 2019 that it wasn’t kayaking that was damaging the river, but the activities of kayakers who get off their boats along the river. By stopping along the river banks or on sand bars, they were destroying vegetation, causing erosion and contributing to water quality decline.

The commission’s vote last week to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to designate the river as a springs protection zone could help stem the decline. The designation allows the state to close a spring and spring run to mooring, anchoring or beaching watercraft on sand bars or shorelines. Boats and kayaks would be allowed, but people on them couldn’t disembark.

This is a thoughtful idea borne from years of considered planning, and it emerged with the input of state and local officials, waterfront property owners, environmental advocates and owners of kayak rental businesses. While some suggested less drastic measures, public education, signage and enforcement of existing rules haven’t worked. And keeping people off sand bars and shorelines is less restrictive than more drastic measures, such as general river closings or an overbearing enforcement presence.

The Legislature created the protection zone designation only this year, and the state law is so new, officials are still crafting the rules to implement the program. Hernando will need to ensure the final rules won’t raise any unintended consequences. And a strategy for the river could include a number of components, including holding businesses on the river more accountable for their customers. But this is a good-faith effort to strike a better balance for Weeki Wachee, with the goal of preserving this resource and its enjoyment for years to come.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.