Time to enforce rules on the abused Weeki Wachee River | Editorial
The rules are already in place to help save the river from further damage.
Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park on May 4.
Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park on May 4. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 11, 2022

Rules help society function, especially when it comes to our common resources. They help nudge us to do the right thing. Humans being human, rules don’t do much good if they aren’t enforced. Without enforcement, self interest takes hold — many people do whatever they dang please, hell with the rest of you, and the downstream consequences be damned, too.

That sums up the current state of the Weeki Wachee River. It’s a spring-fed ribbon of fabulousness — cool, vodka-clear water flowing through a forest teeming with wildlife. But too many people are breaking one of the main rules — stay in your watercraft at all times; do not get out and scamper along the river banks or kick up the river’s sandy bottom. They anchor, moor or ground their vessels on the banks. Some people climb onto the land to jump from trees. The activities kill vegetation and cause erosion.

A sign encourages paddlers and boaters to stay in their vessels on the Weeki Wachee River.
A sign encourages paddlers and boaters to stay in their vessels on the Weeki Wachee River. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As we’ve said before, this is a problem of scale. A handful of people a day getting out of their boats might not cause a noticeable problem. But the river attracts hundreds of visitors on some days. The erosion has felled trees, widened the river, and dirtied the water’s trademark clarity and quality. The damage is so bad that the state is about to start a multimillion-dollar dredging project to help restore the river.

The Weeki Wachee River starts off in a state park and then flows into the Weekiwachee Preserve. For years, boaters have been banned from getting out of their watercraft in the state park. Signs warn boaters not to disembark, but they do it anyway, as the Times Barbara Behrendt reported earlier this month. Why? Some claim not to know the rules — despite the signs. Others apparently don’t care or don’t understand how much damage they are doing. And that’s the problem: One rule-breaker may think that he is special or that his actions can’t cause that much harm. But if everyone acts that way, the problem quickly gets out of hand, and the river can be ruined for everyone — now and in the future.

On the Weeki Wachee, there hasn’t been enough enforcement, so the violators get away with it. One river advocate told the Times that a public records request revealed that state officials wrote no citations within the park boundaries in the summer of 2020, despite obvious rule violations.

Earlier this year, the Hernando Commission sensibly voted to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to establish a Springs Protection Zone. The upgrade would ban disembarking on the 6-mile part of the river that is outside the state park, all the way to Rogers Park near the Gulf of Mexico. If that request is granted, the new zone will empower local and state law enforcement to cite those who ignore the rules. But setting up intelligent rules and actually enforcing those rules aren’t the same thing. The former means little without the latter.

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The stay-in-your-watercraft rule makes sense. It isn’t overly intrusive and doesn’t interfere with private property rights. In fact, it helps protect the privacy of people who live along the river. The rule also helps preserve an environmental gem and the multimillion-dollar investment to restore the river. Why spend all that taxpayer money just to go back to our old destructive ways?

Unfortunately, the state park’s management plan doesn’t adequately address enforcement. Still, this isn’t a difficult fix. Start with education and warnings. For a few weeks, send out officers and knowledgeable and friendly volunteers to explain to violators why they need to stay in their watercraft. After that, start writing citations.

The river needs protecting. The rules are in place. Time for enforcement.

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 Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.