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Don’t spoil ‘nice things’ like the Weeki Wachee River | Editorial
Better decisions would have kept the state from having to spend millions to dredge the river.
The dredging operators on the Weeki Wachee River were shut down in July after contractor Gator Dredging struggled with meeting water quality requirements of their permits. This photo was taken by the Southwest Florida Water Management District when work caused a plume of silt in the river.
The dredging operators on the Weeki Wachee River were shut down in July after contractor Gator Dredging struggled with meeting water quality requirements of their permits. This photo was taken by the Southwest Florida Water Management District when work caused a plume of silt in the river. [ Southwest Florida Water Management District ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sep. 21

“Take care of nice things” is an easily understood approach to preserving what’s valuable. The guidance is as practical as it is effective, though it takes planning and smart decision-making. Fix the leaky faucet before it floods the downstairs bedroom. Eat healthfully to prevent heart disease. Wear a seat belt to avoid serious injuries. But Florida too often forgets that advice when it comes to the environment, choosing a pound of cure instead of an ounce of prevention. The latest reminder: the effort to restore the Weeki Wachee River.

The Weeki Wachee flows west from its eponymous spring in Hernando County into the Gulf of Mexico. The river attracts manatees in the winter and loads of boaters and tubers in the summer. In recent years, too many of those river users haven’t stayed in their craft. They have anchored, moored or grounded their vessels on the river’s banks and sandbars. Some people climb onto the land to jump from trees or play on rope swings. The activities kill vegetation and cause erosion. The behavior has contributed to a buildup of sand in the river. The river has grown wider and shallower in some parts, making it harder to navigate.

Earlier this year, Hernando County commissioners voted unanimously to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to establish a Springs Protection Zone, which would ban disembarking on the river outside of the state park (where disembarking was already banned) to Rogers Park near the gulf. That was a useful and encouraging step, though it was years in the making. Now, an important part of the larger restoration project is hung up: Environmental regulators say the company hired to dredge the river has violated state and federal permits and has breached its $2.13 million contract by failing to meet water quality standards, the Times’ Barbara Behrendt reported last week.

The dredging project shut down just two hours after getting started in June. It started again a few days later, stopped again, started again and then stopped for good on July 22. The dredging exceeded turbidity standards, a measure of water cloudiness. The state and the dredging company are arguing over who’s right, but the bigger point is that it should not have come to this. The once-pristine river would not need to be dredged if we had taken better care over the past years.

The same could be said for the state’s cold-water springs, polluted by agricultural runoff and leaky septic systems. Same for the sludge in Lake Okeechobee, the blue-green algae affecting rivers, the pollution-fed Red Tide blooms in our coastal waters and tainted water from local phosphogypsum stacks leaking into Tampa Bay.

The state might work out the problems with the dredging company, and the Weeki Wachee River may eventually be “repaired.” But the dredging issue is another example of how fixes take a lot more time, effort and money than just making good decisions in advance so our environmental treasures like the Weeki Wachee River don’t need major repairs. Local and state officials must find the backbone to write smart rules that protect endangered environmental treasures. Otherwise, we won’t be able to have nice things. The things that make them special will all disappear.

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 Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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