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Weeki Wachee River capacity study stirs controversy

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times Kayaks and tubes crowd the Weeki Wachee River on a Monday (5/23/16) afternoon as paddlers make their way past the banks of local residents' homes. During the state's fiscal year 2014-15, there were 75,254 kayaks and canoes launched into the Weeki Wachee river from the launch at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, according to a former Swiftmud manager Fritz Musselmann. "That's a lot of kayaks and canoes," he said.
BRENDAN FITTERER | Times Kayaks and tubes crowd the Weeki Wachee River on a Monday (5/23/16) afternoon as paddlers make their way past the banks of local residents' homes. During the state's fiscal year 2014-15, there were 75,254 kayaks and canoes launched into the Weeki Wachee river from the launch at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, according to a former Swiftmud manager Fritz Musselmann. "That's a lot of kayaks and canoes," he said.
Published Dec. 20, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — For a year and a half, residents along the Weeki Wachee River have loudly voiced their concerns about the waterway's future, begging local and state officials to do something to protect the important resource and to curb growing public usage that is among its biggest threats.

Hernando County Commissioners agreed in August to push for a carrying-capacity study, to provide a scientific basis to say how much use is too much for the Weeki Wachee to handle.

But the possibility of limiting the river's use — therefore impacting waterfront homeowners, the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and kayak vendors — has generated controversy which has stalled efforts to get the carrying capacity study started.

On Dec. 12, the County Commission voted to pay its share of the funding necessary to conduct the study. Supporters of the study hope it will help efforts by State Senator Wilton Simpson to secure the remainder of a $6 million state allocation to restore the river. In the last Legislative Session, Simpson helped secure the first $400,000 allocation to pay for the design of the restoration.

Under the plan approved by the County Commission, Hernando County would spend $125,000 of its environmentally sensitive lands fund to match with $125,000 from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to conduct the carrying-capacity study.

The study's stated purpose is "to determine the recreational carrying capacity of the main head spring and river that would allow the maximum level of public access and recreational enjoyment while preventing damage to the river bottom and shoreline, impacts to wildlife or hindrances to wildlife access.''

Because the study is expected to take two years, and because area residents have urged the study as a way to move forward with river restoration, Simpson will not request additional funding in the coming Legislative Session, according to Simpson's chief legislative aide, Rachel Perrin Rogers.

She added that Simpson "did speak with the county commission at length in an effort to obtain the local participation needed to get this on their agenda and move it forward.''

Commissioner John Allocco, who has spearheaded the county's efforts on the river restoration, said he wanted to see the county "put some skin in the game'' by spending county dollars to match the Swiftmud funding.

He also wanted an uninvolved third party to conduct the study, "to get the most objective information.'' Allocco said one possibility was the University of Florida, which did a similar study on the Rainbow River.

Brooksville resident Shirley Miketinac questioned the cost of the study, but Allocco said the county has to protect its interests to turn a small investment into a larger return from the state money Simpson is expected to seek in the future.

"We've got to get in this game first ... or we're going to miss out on the money in the end,'' Allocco said. "The people are concerned about the river,'' said county Port Authority member Chuck Morton. "They want it to be there for their kids and their grandkids.''

Without the carrying-capacity study, "nothing can get done,'' he said.

Hernando County's rules for protecting its sensitive lands include setting carrying capacities, said Shannon Turbeville, another Weeki Wachee resident who has pushed to save the river. "This waterway and the proposed $6 million taxpayer-funded restoration project should be given the same protections from overuse by partnering with the state who, at this time, is willing to pay half the cost of this study,'' Turbeville said.

A related agenda item at the meeting was a one-year contract to allow the kayak vendor at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Guest Services, to use the county's Rogers Park as a place to pull out kayaks.

Allocco said commissioners first approved the idea several months ago. He asked the contract be shortened by several months, and other commissioners agreed.

Part of the argument over kayaks crowding the river centers around the Guest Services operation, which is allowed to launch 70 kayaks per hour.

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

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